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Atlanta native and author Ralph Dennis launched the Hardman series in 1974 for Popular Library. The debut, Atlanta Deathwatch, introduces us to the series hardmen, the aptly titled Jim Hardman and his African-American “protector” in Hump Evans. The series ran 12 volumes, finishing with The Buy Back Blues in 1977. In December 2018, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books imprint will reprint these classics starting with the debut.
While certainly dressing the part as the typical 1970s armed-action fare, this debut showcases a much deeper narrative that doesn't quite match the stereotypical cover. Sure, the book has the #1 plastered on the jacket, complete with a painting of guns, car chases and a female hostage, but under all that, I would theorize that these books were planned as stand alone mystery novels that happened to feature the same sleuths. With the popularity of The Executioner, I'm sure the publisher rode the marketing wave and presented this as another men's adventure series instead of the straightforward mystery that truth-in-advertising ethics would dictate.
Jim Hardman was an Atlanta detective who lost his gig when his girlfriend Marcy fingered him as an accomplice for her crooked employer. Now, Hardman is an out of shape, financially-strapped everyman taking odd jobs for cash. With a bit of anti-hero flavoring, Dennis has Hardman running drugs up to New York for cash while taking “private eye” type jobs to pay the rent.
Accompanying him is Hump Evans, an ex-NFL player who hit hard times and is in financial dire straits himself. Evans is the enforcer, often playing strongman to protect Hardman from the inherent danger of these odd jobs. For 1970s Atlanta, there is plenty of racial tension that spills over into the investigations. Often, Hardman is canvassing black bars and needs Evans front and center. Other times, it's Evans as the minority in the all-white bars probing bit characters for info. So, what exactly is this Atlanta Deathwatch? Well, that part of it is fairly complex.
Hardman takes on a small job watching Georgia Tech student Emily Campbell's activities. Her father is concerned with her well-being and poor academics and pays Hardman to play spectator. It seems innocent enough until Emily winds up dead in the backseat of a car. Before Hardman can even begin piecing together clues, he's forced into a job by a black crimelord simply called The Man. This mysterious criminal was Emily's lover and he's paying Hardman and Evans to locate her killer. Along the way, they run into Emily's former lover along with more criminals associated with The Man. Emily's father, ex-lovers and politicians are all suspects, but as the clues pile up...so do the bodies.
Ralph Dennis has a real passion for the mystery genre and
Hardman possesses all of the key elements that make up the genre – plenty of suspects, a riveting whodunit question, strong characters and enough momentum to keep the reader second-guessing the prior clue's validity. What really sets these characters apart from the jacket's misconception is just how average they are. In one hilarious scene, Hardman is attacked by two enforcers in a car. It's written in the first person and our protagonist reminds us that in these unfortunate situations, the only thing he can do is fart while vomiting all over himself.
Hardman is a poor lady's man – losing Marcy and then somehow gaining her affection/sympathy again. There's not even big guns, knives or fists here. Hardman carries a .38 revolver, and former star athlete Evans is a shotgun man. In fact, the author could have easily ran with Evans being the stereotypical 70s black guy. However, Evans isn't conveyed that way to the reader. I kept thinking of an O.J. Simpson sort of character...”gray” in a time when black and white were clearly defined.
Some have compared the Hardman series to both Robert B. Parker's Spenser as well as Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled Mike Hammer. Regardless of influence, Ralph Dennis clearly has a lot of talent and provides the reader with an enjoyable mystery novel that finishes with a bang. I'm already on the lookout for book two.
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