The Literary Life of Ralph Dennis

RICHARD A. MOORE is a former reporter, a retired public relations executive, and the author of various short stories published by Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock and other mystery magazines and anthologies. He played a big role in making it possible for Brash Books to acquire the rights to the published and unpublished works by Ralph Dennis, an author perhaps best known among crime writers for his 12 legendary Hardman novels…which we will begin re-releasing today. This essay has previously appeared, in various forms, on an array of crime fiction blogs… and is reprinted in the Brash edition of THE GOLDEN GIRL AND ALL, the third book in the Hardman series. 

Ralph Dennis (1932-1988) was born in South Carolina and had a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina, where he also taught. For mystery fans, Dennis will always be associated with the City of Atlanta, the locale for the twelve novel series about Jim Hardman, former cop and unofficial private eye, all published by Popular Library between 1974 and 1977.

Seldom has a city played such an important role in a series as Atlanta does Dennis’ novels.  He delighted in sprinkling his novels with the restaurants, bars, nightclubs, hotels and street corners of his adopted home. I don’t know when Dennis moved to Atlanta but I can vouch for how well he knew the city for I spent most of the 1970s as a reporter there. And I admit that I derive special pleasure from the splendid depiction of a city I lived, worked and played hard in for that decade.

The decade was nearly over and I had become a mystery writer myself before I ever read a word by Dennis. The late Jud Sapp, bibliographer of Rex Stout, shoved a copy of the fourth novel in the series, Pimp For The Dead,into my hands and said I had to read it. Jud was an elementary school principal, and looked it, so given the title and the packaging, the recommendation was more than a little incongruous. From the first few pages, Dennis had me hooked and I’ve remained a fan.

The Jim Hardman series was packaged similarly to all the other action heroes of the time—the Destroyer, the Executioner, the Lone Wolf, and on and on. Each novel had a number as well as a title in these series because that helped the fans keep track of which they had read. The plots of so many of these series were too interchangeable for a reader to keep track without the aid of a numbered system.

The Hardman series was trumpeted as “A great new private eye for the shockproof ‘70s,” which was funny, since Jim Hardman was far from the typical action-adventure hero in other numbered series. He was middle-aged and as out-of-shape as most guys who get their primary exercise lifting beers or glasses of J&B Scotch. And he lifted quite a few.

Hardman had more than his share of fights in the novels, with mixed results. The true muscle was provided by Hardman’s friend Hump Evans, formerly a defensive end with the Cleveland Browns. Today having an Afro-American sidekick who provides the muscle or does the dirty work is something of a cliché — it wasn’t in the 1970s. More importantly, Hump was always an equal partner with Hardman. Hardman didn’t shy away from brawls; it was just that Hump was better at it. At 6-6 (or 6-7 as both were given at different times) and 270 pounds, Hump always retained a certain independence from Hardman. There was nothing demeaning about Hump or his relationship with Hardman.

The Dennis publishing history is interesting. The first Hardman novel appeared in April 1974 and a total of seven Hardman novels were published in that first year.

It was not unusual for a publisher to have three novels in a series ready to go out simultaneously or in quick succession in order to establish the concept of the series with the public. This was done with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, for example. But seven novels in one year was very unusual for a series that was not being ghosted.

Here is the publishing sequence of the first seven Hardman novels:

Atlanta Deathwatch   April 1974

The Charleston Knife is Back In Town   May 1974

The Golden Girl & All   May 1974

Pimp For The Dead   June 1974

Down Among The Jocks   July 1974

Murder’s Not An Odd Job   August 1974

Working For The Man   September 1974

That is an incredible record of productivity. The Hardman novels do show signs of hasty construction at times but given this publishing schedule, it is amazing that Dennis could maintain the quality at this pace.

The eighth Hardman did not appear until 1976. In the intervening two years, Dennis published two novels, Atlanta (Popular Library 1975) and Dead Man’s Game (Berkley January 1976), then returned to Jim Hardman with the eighth through twelfth books in the series. Here’s is the publishing sequence for the final batch of Hardman books:

The Deadly Cotton Heart   November 1976

The One-Dollar Rip-Off   January 1977

Hump’s First Case   March 1977

The Last Of The Armageddon Wars   May 1977

The Buy Back Blues   July 1977

Dennis finally achieved a hardback sale with MacTaggart’s War (Holt 1979, which Brash is re-releasing in March 2019, in a substantially revised form, as The War Heist). By far his most ambitious work, the plot concerns an attempt to hijack the gold bullion that Britain moved to Canada for safekeeping during the dark days of World War II. While not completely successful, this novel outshines so many others that made the bestseller lists and were grabbed by Hollywood. At the time of publication, Dennis must have felt himself on the brink of a breakthrough. MacTaggart’s War was a great read and it would have made a wonderful Clint Eastwood movie. Alas, this was the last Dennis novel to be published.

I moved to Washington in 1981 but made trips twice-a-year to Atlanta. Oxford Books was always one of the places I visited, especially after they opened an Oxford II that featured used books. One day as I looked around Oxford II, I noticed this bald, middle-aged guy at a counter going through the new arrivals and pricing them. It was Ralph Dennis. I recognized him from a newspaper picture some years before. 

We chatted for several minutes. I wondered why I had not seen anything by him in several years. He pointed to a Richard Stark novel about the tough crook Parker that I had in my pile. Dennis said he had written a novel with a lead character that made Parker look like a sissy. His editor was enthusiastic and Dennis thought it was his best work. Unfortunately, the editor was let go by the publisher and his replacement did not care at all for the novel. It was the old story of the orphaned novel and writer. A publisher intended to reprint all the Hardman novels and oddly started with the second The Charleston Knife’s Back In Town (alas, the reprinting did not extend to the others as planned: it just wasn’t to be).

All of this took place as other store personnel buzzed about us with censoring looks. I felt guilty for taking up his time and perhaps getting him in trouble as other staff members had hovered near us during our conversation.

Some months later I went back and he wasn’t there. At the cash register there was a Ralph Dennis memorial sign and I was shocked to learn of his death.

Time passed and some years later an evening came when I was drinking and thinking and I picked up the phone and put my old reporter instincts to work. I tracked down Ralph’s sister Irma in a town where she owned and ran a restaurant and asked her about Dennis. She told me that she’d loved her brother. As his situation and his health deteriorated, she’d begged him to come live with her. She’d felt she owed him that much because he had meant so much to her growing up. He refused out of pride and he died not long after. There was a memorial held in his honor at his favorite Atlanta bar, George’s Deli.

Some years later, I reconnected with his sister and we had many cheerful conversations and she filled me in more on his background. Ralph earned an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and he was well on his way to a doctorate when he had a falling out with his faculty advisor and dropped out.

His playwriting ambition continued in North Carolina and two of his plays were produced in Winston-Salem.  He also wrote fiction but nothing sold.  He moved to Atlanta in 1970 and it was there he wrote the first Hardman novel, which quickly sold.  The Hardman series provided a living, and he had a comfortable life, but he was restless for bigger things.

Irma visited him in Atlanta, where he lived in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood within an easy walk of his favorite bar.  He had a favorite booth where, after a day of writing, he could sip beer, watch people and hold court. 

I wish Irma and I had talked more about their difficult childhood.  I know that she was the oldest of three children, followed Ralph and William, and that they ended up in an orphanage when their father died in South Carolina in 1941.

According to the records I’ve found, the kids left the orphanage at some point and in 1945 were in Jacksonville Beach, FL where Ralph and William went to school and Irma supported them as a waitress.In 1946, they were back in South Carolina, where Irma worked as a cashier in the Dixie Double Dip Ice Cream Cup while her brothers continued in school.  Somehow, they got through it together.

Irma and I very much wanted to see Ralph’s work back in print. I was excited to learn that she had copies of several of Ralph’s unpublished novels.  She sent them to me to read and they were longer, more ambitious work that what Ralph had done before. But there was also one shorter book, entitled simply Kane, and I knew after reading just a few pages that this was the novel Ralph told me about in our only meeting—the one that was “orphaned” when his editor left and his new editor hated the book. 

Kanewas a intended as a sequel to his 1976 novel Dead Man’s Game (which is very difficult to find now) and featured a hitman who was indeed extremely hardboiled and ruthless enough to rival Westlake’s Parker.  The Kane manuscript had the new editor’s comments scribbled all over it… and it was clear that he didn’t understand the character or the genre at all.

I desperately wanted to see Ralph’s work get back into print, but there wasn’t much interest. There was one nibble from a publisher in 2004, but then Irma died and the rights to Ralph’s worked passed on to her heirs.

In the many years since then, interest in Ralph’s books has remained high among paperback collectors and crime novel writers, but no publishers came calling until 2014… when Lee Goldberg tracked me down and asked for my help locating the heirs and securing the rights.

Now Lee’s publishing company Brash Books, which he founded with Joel Goldman, is bringing back all of Ralph’s previously published books and will be releasing his unpublished manuscripts, too.

I really sense Irma’s spirit as Ralph’s work is finally getting a second life. She would be so pleased know that a new generation of readers is about to discover his Hardman novels and I’m certain that the first publication of his long-lost manuscripts will bring a new, greater appreciation for his talent.