Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a free copy of this from the publisher for review.
I knew I was in for a good time when I saw this warning at the start of the book:
“Publishers note: This book was originally published in 1974 and reflects the cultural and sexual attitudes, language, and politics of the period.”
That’s right, baby! It’s 1974 so let's get sleazy!
Jim Hardman is an ex-cop who now makes his living in Atlanta as an off-the-books private investigator, and he supplements his income by occasionally transporting narcotics. Hardman is doing what seems to be a simple job of following a young college girl for her father, but a thorough beating from some thugs get him to drop the case.
Unfortunately the girl is then murdered and a black gangster known only as The Man hires Hardman to find the killer. This is a little odd since it was The Man who had Hardman scared off the case originally. Investigating her death results in increasing carnage all around him, but fortunately Hardman can count on his best friend, a former NFL player named Hump Evans, to back him up and let him sleep on his couch when Hardman is afraid to go home.
I got interested in checking out this series after attending last year’s Bouchercon and hearing author/publisher Lee Goldberg talk about how he had become obsessed with this mostly forgotten series and had made it a mission to reprint the books in order to make sure that Ralph Dennis wasn’t forgotten. You can read all about that here.
After finishing the book, I’m very glad that Goldberg got these out here. Dennis was a far better writer than the original publication of these as ‘men’s action adventure paperbacks’ would indicate. In his introduction of this edition, Joe R. Lansdale credits these books as being an influence on his creation of Hap & Leonard so I think it's fair to say that the Hardman & Hump partnership was one of the pioneers of the whole detective-character-with-bad-ass-friend dynamic that a lot of modern PI novels use.
The morally flexible Hardman becomes a fairly complex character over the course of the book. He isn’t operating on some kind of strict moral code like a Marlowe or a Spenser, and he lacks the polish of a Sam Spade. Overall, Hardman comes across as a good guy who once got a raw deal and is now just doing the best he can.
The ‘70s factor might be a plus or a minus depending on each reader’s own preferences. I loved the whole grimy atmosphere of the book in which Hardman and Hump think splitting a pint of booze in the car while tailing someone is just standard operating procedure. If this book was scratch & sniff the odor would be of an old shag carpet filled with cigarette ash and spilled Pabst Blue Ribbon.
There are some things that come across as cringe-worthy in terms of race and sexism, but overall Dennis’ writing isn’t nearly as dated as you’d expect from a book of this genre written in this era.
I had a lotta throwback fun with this, and I’ll be checking out more of the series.
View all my reviews