Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Man With A Knife

It's been more than a year since the last Hardman novel I read. Ralph Dennis' hardboiled tales of flabby ex-cop Jim Hardman and his hip, huge ex-NFL-player sidekick Hump Evans are decent fare lacking the sleaze and violence of other men's adventure series of the era. However, the Hardman books make up for it in humor and an interesting Culp-and-Cosby-like relationship between the leads.

Hardman #2, THE CHARLESTON KNIFE'S BACK IN TOWN (Popular Library, 1974), finds unofficial private dick Hardman hired by a sweet old lady to find her missing grandson. Both are pretty sure he was involved with an amateur heist that has both the Mafia and Hump, who was ripped off of $700, pissed off and out for blood. For granny's sake, Hardman hopes he finds the kid before the Charleston Knife, a hitman with a thing for blades, does.

Ralph Dennis was based in Atlanta, where he set the Hardman series. He appears to have been a respected, though obscure, writer of paperback originals, and many fans believe he never received his proper due. Based on the two Dennis novels I've read, I tend to agree. I was lukewarm on THE LAST OF THE ARMAGEDDON WARS, but CHARLESTON KNIFE is a good, brisk read with colorful characters. Before his 1988 death, Dennis was reportedly an alcoholic and working at an Atlanta used book store, where his co-workers seemed unaware of his past as an author. I won't wait nearly as long to read my next Hardman book as I did to read this one.


Bill Crider said...

This is a great series. It's not men's adventure at all, but a p.i. series that wasn't sold as such. I've read all the books, some of them more than once.

RunningDog said...

I worked with Ralph Dennis from 1987 until his death in '88. Believe me, we were all well aware of Ralph's past at Oxford Too, the used bookstore where he worked, and competed to see who could track down copies of his numerous books. Finding one was a prize, and he would reward the finder with an autograph if he was in a good mood.
Ralph was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, but he was self-destructive. I did learn a lot from him in the short period that I had known him.

Lee Goldberg said...

This book was my introduction to the Hardman series and to Ralph Dennis. It's a tragedy this book was marketed/packaged as a men's action adventure novel. Dennis was the real deal...these deserved to be recognized as straight-up noir. These novels pre-date Robert B. Parker's SPENSER series and yet are strikingly similar... Makes me wonder if Parker might have read one of the Hardmans at some point and it was percolating in his subconscious when he created his own series. Like Spenser, Hardman is an ex-cop turned investigator/bodyguard who lives by his own moral code and teams up often with a rough, violent African-American enforcer. He's also got a steady, loving girlfriend who understands, if not totally accepts, who he is and what he does (and isn't nearly as irritating as Susan Silverman), and a friend on the force (ala Belson and Quirk) who helps him out. He's also deeply tied in with the local mob bosses who have an understanding with him (again, like Spenser). And Atlanta, the city where Hardman lives, is a vivid character in the books (like Boston in the Spensers). The tone of the Hardmans is very different than the Spensers, and Spenser is far more moralistic, physically capable, smart-assy, and sure of himself than Hardman, but otherwise the franchise elements are almost identical. Ralph Dennis has a great voice, a wicked sense of humor, and a very sharp eye for detail. It's a damn shame this man never broke out into the big leagues. I loved this book and I am eager to devour the rest of this series.