Showing posts with label Ralph Dennis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Dennis. Show all posts

Monday, May 11, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 43

On Paperback Warrior Episode 43, we countdown the blog’s 10 most popular reviews chosen by our readers. Tom discusses new finds by old authors Robert Colby and Andrew Frazer. Eric laments the horror of moving thousands of vintage paperbacks and shelves to a new home. Listen on your favorite podcast app,, or download directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 43: Top 10 Review Countdown" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dust in the Heart

New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman (founders of Brash Books) have remained steadfast in their preservation of the Ralph Dennis body of work. Dennis, a South Carolina native, was born in 1931, received a masters at the University of North Carolina and produced a steady stream of fine fiction that mostly went unnoticed by mainstream readers. Passing away in 1988, Brash Books has rekindled the fire for many of Dennis' published work, including the 12 installments of the 1970s hardboiled series 'Hardman'. Along with re-editing and reprinting published novels like “Atlanta” (newly released as “The Broken Fixer”) and “MacTaggart's War (reprinted as “The War Heist”), Goldberg has discovered numerous unpublished manuscripts from the Dennis archives.

The most recent Brash Books project is a Ralph Dennis manuscript penned in the 1987-1988 time-frame. This is reflected in discouraging letters Dennis wrote to colleagues about the unsold work. “Dust in the Heart” is a different novel and avoids the pitfalls of the men's action-adventure paperbacks of the 70s. Like his other works, it is set in the southeastern U.S., but in a fictional North Carolina town rather than his go-to of Atlanta. That's not to say it doesn't possess the author's consistent ferocity. Indeed, “Dust in the Heart” is perhaps Dennis' most profoundly disturbing book due to the subject matter – a serial sex-killer preying on six year-old children. Dennis' use of sodden, rural fields, counterbalanced by a dark seedy strip club, envelops the flawed hero and the reader. It's upon this black canvas that Ralph Dennis outshines his prior efforts.

The novel's protagonist is Sheriff Wilton Drake, a former Navy sailor who found his life upended by a sniper bullet in Lebanon. The bullet not only shattered his hip but his marriage, too. After fifteen years and a lot of empty bottles, we now find Drake as the proverbial small-town badge in Edgefield, North Carolina. Drake's alcoholic desires are partnered with his obsession for Diane, a stripper working at The Blue Lagoon. The author sometimes uses these as handrails as Drake climbs through procedures, small-town politics and bureaucracy to solve a young girl's brutal rape and murder. It's here, in the rain where readers first discover Drake hunched over the girl's body. As the procedural narrative tightens, another child goes missing, pushing Drake and his department to find the killer before the next victim.

There's a number of elements that Ralph Dennis uses that may parallel his own career. As essentially his last literary work, “Dust in the Heart” has a number of references to things that are just outside the grasp. Drake's romantic feelings are within reach, but his relationship with Diane is challenging and cold. The investigation may reveal the killer, but it's too far of a reach for a conviction. Cleverly, Dennis even uses the weather, explaining that snowfall barely touches “Edgefield”, instead pocketing just west of Greensboro every winter. The author's idea of elements within sight but out of touch could be self-reflective of the author's commercial failures as a producer of popular fiction. There's even a side-story where Drake spars with an F.B.I. Agent for credit in the newspaper. These are all indicative of the author's career missteps and failings.

“Dust in the Heart” is an effective, smart police procedural starring a purposefully flawed hero. While certain genre tropes are familiar, the author's ominous prose is masterful. “Dust in the Heart” proves that even small-town America can be the most threatening. It's this cold, sinister approach that makes Ralph Dennis' final pen-stroke his most enduring legacy.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Spy in a Box

Author Ralph Dennis, who passed away in 1988, is mostly remembered for his 12-book series of hardboiled 'Hardman' novels. Brash Books, owned by New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, have meticulously culled the author's published and unpublished catalog to re-introduce many of these novels to a new generation of crime-fiction fans. Along with “Dust in the Heart” (2020), “Spy in the Box” is another unpublished manuscript that Lee Goldberg unearthed from the author's archives. After extensive editing, the book now remains as another published testament of Ralph Dennis' talents as a storyteller.

The book places readers in the political upheaval of 1980s Costa Verde. Protagonist Will Hall works for the CIA as an experienced diplomatic operative. His assignment is uncovering the layers of bureaucracy tearing the small Latin American country apart. Hall's view is that the U.S. should support the moderates, led by presidential candidate Paul Marcos. His opposition is the rebels, backed by both Cuba and the Soviet Union.  After securing a firm relationship with Marcos, Hall is ordered to meet with the right wing party of landowners and mining interests. As a courtesy to Marcos, Hall arrives for an impromptu meeting to advise him that meetings will commence with the right wing. However, Hall arrives just in time to see Marcos assassinated by what he believes is the CIA. Discouraged and jaded, Hall returns to Washington and promptly retires.

Hall settles into a life of normalcy in his North Carolina mountain home. His serenity becomes short-lived when he reads that a bogus expose has been submitted to the newspaper. Falsely published under Hall’s by-line, the article exposes the assassination of Marcos including personal details that only Hall possesses. When Hall reports that the article was not authored by him, his entire life turns upside down. The CIA, press, and former colleagues have seemingly framed Hall, tossing the former operative into an intriguing cat-and-mouse game that he's forced to play to clear his name...and stay alive.

Like “The War Heist” (originally “MacTaggart's War”), Ralph Dennis manipulates a lot of characters and settings to present his unique story. What begins as the proverbial “frame job” story, where many spy and espionage thrillers thrive, eventually evolves into an elaborate power play between industry giants. Instead of suits and ties, it's Uzis and Ingrams. The author's character development of Hall is his strong suit, an attribute that is important given the amount of characters that bob and weave in and out of the narrative. There's a brief love interest, an international mystery and a tailspin on the moral compass – bad, badder, baddest. Thankfully, these characters sometimes blur the boundaries of what is perceived as traditional heroes.

With “Spy in the Box”, Ralph Dennis crafts an unconventional spy thriller with compelling characters that springboard into action. As more and more of the author's work is unearthed, Dennis is finally receiving the literary accolades he deserves.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, March 1, 2019

The War Heist (aka MacTaggart's War)

Atlanta native Ralph Dennis launched the 'Hardman' series in 1974 for Popular Library. The paperback originals ran 12 volumes, finishing with “The Buy Back Blues” in 1977. In December 2018, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books began reprinting the Hardman classics starting with the debut. Additionally, one of the other acquisitions by Brash Books was a stand-alone heist novel by Dennis originally entitled “MacTaggart's War.”

The story behind “MacTaggart's War” and it's transformation into today's “The War Heist” is a noteworthy literary accomplishment. Originally this novel was released in hardcover in 1979. The book failed to receive commercial success or critical notice, so the novel simply came and went like many new releases do. By the time the author died in 1988, Dennis was operating an Atlanta bookstore with a file cabinet full of unpublished novels adding to his published works that failed to gain traction with the reading public.

A few years ago, New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg began negotiating with Dennis’ estate for the publication rights to the author’s complete body of work – published and unpublished – with the initial goal of releasing the 'Hardman' series on the Brash Books imprint. After reading “MacTaggart's War” and seeing the possibilities, Goldberg edited the novel’s composition and structure – deleting entire chapters and re-arranging others - to make the book more interesting to modern thriller readers. The end result of this posthumous collaboration is what we have today, a souped-up and streamlined new novel entitled “The War Heist.” At a whopping 407-pages, this isn't your standard 170-page Fawcett Gold Medal quickie. I can’t imagine how much padding the book contained in its original form before Goldberg culled the fat and was still left with such a weighty novel.

Sadly, the end result is a pretty bland and over-plotted narrative that failed to really excite. In all fairness, I'm not a superfan of high adventure paperbacks by Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley or Alistair Maclean, so a lengthy novel with a WW2 backdrop felt like a heavy lift from the start. The heist aspect of the plot speaks to fans of crime-noir stories of the 1950s and 1960s, but the intricate theft is cloaked in the dense wrapper of an epic novel.

The story leverages an actual event in WW2 history – a simply remarkable mission known as Operation Salt Fish. In 1940, Winston Churchill and his cabinet felt that the United Kingdom was at real risk of being overrun by Hitler’s Germany. Fearing an imminent invasion and subsequent loss, the British conceived plans to ship their liquid assets to Canada by boat for safekeeping. The idea was that Churchill and his colleagues would continue coordinating the fight against Germany from the safety of Montreal. This continuation of the United Kingdom’s governmental continuity would be funded by 2.5 billion in gold and bonds transferred across the Atlantic through a sea of German U-Boats. Miraculously, not one ship was lost in this secret transfer of assets abroad.

Ralph Dennis utilizes this remarkable piece of history as the backdrop for a fictional heist by U.S. Army personnel attempting to rob the millions in British gold from the shipment. The robust novel covers the planning, recruitment and operation to grab the loot during the transfer from boat to train on Canadian soil. There's more than a dozen characters blurring the lines between valiant heroes and despicable villains. After so much planning – spanning chapter upon chapter – the book's final 90-pages have many of the elements of a top-notch action thriller. Nevertheless, the expansive story leading up to the climax failed to fully grasp my attention, so the final payoff left me feeling weary from the long road to Canada.

Despite my own misgivings, “The War Heist” should have much greater appeal to hardcore fans of classic high adventure thrillers. Kudos to Lee Goldberg and Brash Books for re-introducing Dennis’ forgotten novels to a new generation of readers. I sincerely hope that his body of work is discovered by a modern fan base. Moreover, I'm excited to explore the other unpublished manuscripts from Dennis currently in Goldberg’s possession, and I hope that Brash Books continues their commitment to publish the author’s complete catalog in the years to come.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 3, 2018

Hardman #02 - The Charleston Knife is Back in Town

Author Ralph Dennis began the 'Hardman' series in 1974 with "Atlanta Deathwatch". The book would kick-start a beloved 12 volume run of detective novels. Dennis used racy Atlanta as the backdrop for his two crime-fighters - Jim Hardman and Hump Evans. Recently, author and genre enthusiast Lee Goldberg acquired the publishing rights to 'Hardman' for his imprint, Brash Books.

You can read the review for “Atlanta Deathwatch” here. The second entry, “The Charleston Knife is Back in Town” (1974), features an introduction by author Joe R. Lansdale for its reprinting. It's the same intro used on the reprinting of the series debut, one where Lansdale clearly segregates the 'Hardman' series from what he considers a rather disposable 70s men's action-adventure genre (he has some disdain for adult westerns and his own work on the 'M.I.A. Hunter' titles). Lansdale is a fan of Dennis and his opening remarks about the series are

“The Charleston Knife is Back in Town” starts with the obligatory heist. This time Hump Evans is invited to a posh neighborhood for a little gambling party post-prize fight. Once there, he's escorted by gunpoint to a dark room sans his $700 of WAM (that's slang for Walk Around Money). After the robbers leave and the cops arrive, Evans embarrassingly shows up at Hardman's house to explain his night's turn of bad luck. It turns out that the gambling festivities involved many underworld honchos – all taken for over $700K in assets. Heads will roll. 

Soon, Hardman and Hump are contacted by a friend's sister with a possible connection to the heist. She fears that her young nephew was behind the robbery and may be a mob target. Our two detectives accept some payment and learn that the mob is coming down hard on the robbers. They have big money in place with a demand that the heist crew be taken down...real messy. The novel is a smooth and calculating read as Hardman and Hump navigate whore houses, strip clubs and dives to track down the robbers before the hired slasher.  

This series, and its second installment, showcases this Atlanta author's penchant for the crime noir. Building the novel around the heist is a vintage staple, but the spin here is having the protagonist attempting to save the crook. The sense of urgency increases with each chapter as the hired killer devours the clues. Ultimately, you know Hardman and this knife-wielder will face off - but it's how and where they meet that makes for an intriguing development. Kudos to Ralph Dennis, and Lee Goldberg, for recognizing what makes the detective formula effectively click. This is a mandatory read.

Purchase this book HERE

Friday, August 31, 2018

Hardman #01 - Atlanta Deathwatch

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 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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE