Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"All Kinds of Ugly" The Long-Lost Final Hardman Novel by Ralph Dennis

Can you tell it's my favorite?
My memory is fuzzy. Jim Hardman and Hump Evans either found their way onto my bookshelf with a blind purchase of a gaudy paperback or I might have stumbled onto them via Thrilling Detective either one is possible. I was a teenager and reading private eye novels which I had developed a Jones for after getting hooked on Joe R. Lansdale's Hap Collins and Leonard Pines novels through his horror fiction. Hap and Leonard pressed their world views into my brain, they became a personal thing, tough guys who stood up for things and bantered like an old married couple. Hap and Leonard sent me looking for more and more and suddenly I was in a flame red El Camino between Montana and Texas with a Vietnam Vet named C.W. Sughrue ("Sug as in sugar and rue as in 'rue the goddamned day'") and the road was full of dirty wit, shocking  violence and deep sadness. I knew I wanted to be a writer then. I have a lot of writers that I like, some mean a whole hell of a lot including the oft quoted "Holy Trinity" of mystery writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald (though Mickey Spillane is much higher on my list then MacDonald) but they weren't my personal "Holy Trinity." The three guys I'd pick are Lansdale, Crumley and Ralph Dennis.

Ralph Dennis didn't have the luck the other two and some of everything is luck. Dennis wrote his Hardman books with Popular Library a mid-level publishing outfit. Not Pinnacle or Gold Medal, but usually a bit above some of the other paperback places. They didn't set the world on fire but he must have burned through type writers cause he wrote 12 of them in three years or so. More importantly they are each a hard bitten little diamond in the Atlanta rough.  Dennis knew he was writing pulp, there's enough ass-kicking and gun-fights to keep anyone interested but the characters are a lot deeper then their kinda silly named suggests. Hardman and Hump always makes my wife giggle. Hump and Hardman's relationship; a white pudgy ex-cop and a black former NFL player in the South in the 70's was certainly not the norm. Dennis was ahead of the curve and there's less of the usual racist and sexist stuff in the books then the average Men's Adventure tales. Partly cause they aren't Men's Adventure, they are simply crime tales with a lot of action and thrills. Hump and Hardman grow closer and become the only family either of them has that fully understands. Not that they'd say that to each other. They show it to each other in their actions and these a hard-drinkin' 70's men who wear their emotions buried deep in their heart.

After 12 Hardman's Dennis wanted to break away from the character. That's understandable, that's a lot of writing and he wanted that hardback life and some respect that he deserved. He didn't really make it. He wrote other books and the world remained unlit, so flame-less that they stopped getting published. The years passed and Hardman and Hump seemed to be forgotten. I never thought anyone else really loved them the way I did. Boy, I was wrong.

Lee Goldberg, a hell of a writer his-own-self did the Paperback God's good work and did that long play to get Hardman republished by his Brash Books, who reprint a lot of the good stuff. Eventually there was the unpublished books, a sequel to "Deadman's Game," a ultra-hard-boiled spy novel, another espionage tale "The Spy in the Box," and a standalone mystery called "Dust in the Heart." And in a twisting mystery tale of it's own (I won't spoil it, buy the damned book and read the afterword when you're done) a book called "The Polish Wife," which became "All Kinds of Ugly," the damned-near lost final Hardman novel.

It was a long work week. A week of shiftless reading, the kind where you pick up books and they don't grab you. Honestly I had bee avoiding the final Hardman, that'd be a special occasion, like a expensive bottle of whisky. Though, I had finally gotten around to buying the paperback so it was in my house lurking and calling my name from the shelf. It found it's way to my armchair and there was a bottle of beer on the upturned plastic wooden barrel I keep beside it for remotes. Then BOOM! I'm halfway through the book and two beers in.

Hardman goes to London to find a rich kid and escape his romantic problems. Marcy one of the only reoccurring characters in the books has left him and multiple beers at George's Deli haven't helped. Maybe a little work will and change of local. That's the jumping off point and Hardman meets the Polish wife of the would be title and gets buried neck-deep into a rich families problems. There's murders and tough-guy scenes, a lot of local color and a man who's growing older and sadder and doesn't think things are going to work out the way he wanted. The action starts in Atlanta and then moves to London. I didn't know what I'd think about Hardman in a different locale, so much of Hardman IS Atlanta, but my doubts all faded away. Hardman just drank in pubs instead of bars and his nose still got stuck in places it shouldn't. Hardman quickly finds the missing guy dead and is back in Atlanta with the Polish Wife in tow. There's echos of Ross MacDonald's Archer in the probing of the family but it's ultimately not about the rich family and a dash of classical "locked room" mystery even if it's in a horse stable instead of the parlor. It's about Hardman and the Polish Wife both brutally scrambling for what they want and knowing its the last shot they will ever have. The Polish Wife herself is a interesting and fairly likeable and relatable real human version of the "femme fatale."  You understand exactly why she does what she does and falls the way she falls. That's the beauty of Dennis's writing: pulp with real people. Everybody is someone you know, know of or don't want to know.

And in one evening, barely moving from my chair with four beers drank; the book was done. The last Hardman was read and that sure is something. 

Maybe it wouldn't mean as much without the benefit of the previous twelve books but it's an ending and you should probably read it last. It's not as action-orientated as some of the other books and there's a little bit too little Hump (isn't there always?) but it's a full-blown miracle that it exists. So, Lee Goldberg will have my eternal thanks, all of Ralph Dennis's library is easily purchased in paperback or ebook from Brash Books. The Hardman books are some of the finest examples of crime fiction in the 70's and finally some light it getting shown on them and it's about good-god-damned time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

A Quintuple Blast of 70's Action

SO, I moved, I dunno, several thousand books last month from one house to another, plus all my other shit. It's as pleasant as it sounds. To break up the monotony and save my back, I read three slim paperbacks. Sorry about they super late reviews but sorting, organizing and cataloging has been quite the chore. But here's a bunch of reviews.

I started with "The Big Needle," after reading about on Paperback Warrior (a vastly more put together and comprehensive collection of entertaining reviews) I was intrigued because it was an early work of Ken Follett. The early pulpy works of authors who later became well-known can sometiems be excellent and other can be just a tepid and boring as most mainstream fiction. Paperback Warrior didn't care for this book, as I am VERY easy to please I came away from it wishing the final two chapters in the "Apples" Carstairs trilogy weren't so hard to find. I'd read them in a heartbeat.

Ken Follett as Symon Myles here creates "Apples" a swinging London building contractor out for revenge with his two girlfriends in tow. The book rolled over my eyes like a wonderful 70's Eurocrime movie, probably made with Italian and British money and probably staring Richard Harris, or maybe Michael Caine. Anyway Apples is a rough sort in a higher pay bracket, with a background in crime reporter and the military and most likely anything else the story might need at that point races off (literally) after finding out his daughter is in hospital after ODing. Not a lot of this book makes sense, I get that right out there in the open. Apples flip-flops from being pissed about drugs and drug dealers to banging any chick he can and the ideas about lesbian/bisexual are very back-asswards, but surprisingly Apples girlfriends are some of the better characters in the book. The story plays fast and loose with Apples trying to set up a drug buy to trap his prey, along the way he pulls a "French Connection" with a car packed full of heroin, drives in his super-cool Jaguar, does some businessman stuff, drinks and smokes weed. I think I like him because he's a lot hipper then the usual "drug-buster" character and Follett's tongue seems to be creeping through his teeth into his cheek throughout.

"The Big Needle" was a slim book, but "The Syndicate" by my friend and yours Peter McCurtin is practically a novella. The cover promises "Godfather" like insight into the inter workings of the dreaded Mafia, luckily that's just Belemont-Tower pulling your leg. James Broderick is a badass Mafia killer sent out by an aging Don to kill a dick-ass Nazi in ancient Irish castle built up like a fortress. Yeah, now that's a plot synopsis.

Broderick is a lot like most McCurtin's protagonists, kind of a wise-ass mixed with utter badass. That's about all you get or need to know. It's a wallop of a fun plot that probably could have used a second draft with a little bit more book injected into it. Maybe it was written in a booze-fueled weekend to catch a deadline by the balls. Yeah, that might be it. So, there's a Neo-Nazi bent on doing what Nazi's do best: fuck shit up and it's going to get in the way of the Mafia's operation. This is a nice idea and twist on the initial set-up. The fist bit plays like a spy story with a lone agent going to pick up his latest assignment from his boss, only the boss is the Don and instead of national interests its pure finical interests. Sooner or later this Nazi is going to cost he mob money and they aren't going to like that. Enter Broderick. So, tangles with goons, a Nazi-She-Devil or the Doctor Nazi-She-Devil variety, breaks out of a castle and kills who's gots to get kills. It's all over before you know it, which is a shame. Nothing is used to it's full potential but ts written in the McCurtin style which is professional action writing, it's okay but pales in comparison to his other work. It might have worked better within one of McCurtin's series works like as a Marksman, Sharpshooter or a Soldier of Fortune book.

The next book I read had some meat on it's bones "Lone Wolf #1: Night Raider," by Mike Barry or
Barry Maltzberg as it says on his taxes. I've been wanting to dip my toe into the pool of this particular series for a while but was informed that they HAVE to be read in order as it builds and builds over the series. So, I finally picked up a copy of #1 let it sit on a shelf for months, remember I wanted to read it and picked it up. That's how I roll.

Easily this is the best book of the five, it's a rock solid example of Men's Adventure Fiction. It's going up there in the hall of fame. Burt Wulf (get it?) is a Narc who's lady-friend is found dead by him after ODing. Basically his mind goes POP! and he decides to do the long road to revenge thing. It's not an original plot but Malzberg is a damned fine writer and continuously ratchets up the tension and lets Wulf's sanity slowly slip away. All the side characters are unique and interesting, with nary a stock character in the mix, like a mobster on a tear with a wife glued to the TV who doesn't pay attention to the world around her and the love he feels for his 10 year old Buick and Wulf's old partner, a African-American rookie who became a cop because people have to take notice of him when he's in uniform. Malzberg creates whole characters in little bits. The story is simple enough Wulf follows the trail of baddies, whooping their ass until he can move on the next one, much like a super bloody Mario Bros. Wulf's a dick and psycho but he's a thinker too and his solution to killing this episodes bad-guy is pretty clever compared to the simple "shoot-everyone" climax often used, but is also still satisfactory. It'll be interesting to see how Wulff gets crazier and crazier as the books progress. I also like that Wulf looks like Mr. Fantastic with a .45 on the cover.

Like a lot of fans of Men's adventure I'm an avid reader of Glorious Trash as it's practically the bible of the kinds of novels. It's a blog that has cost me a lot of money and much more joy. The review of Dean Ballenger's Gannon series has made my mouth water for a couple of years but I never held out much hope for tracking any of them down cause it's the same sad story, too few copies and too high of prices. With a coupon and a little (okay a lot) of cash I ended up with #2 "Blood Fix" and #3 "Blood Beast" and my tiny heart grew six whole inches. I dove head first in the insane world of the "little tiger" Gannon with his spiked brass knuckles, his .357, sweet Mercedes and a thirst for murdering the rich and evil. The rich is key word, the Gannon landscape has Depression-Era vibes, class warfare and out-dated slang fill the book. It's a book out of time simultaneously feeling, 20's, 70's and no time that has ever existed. It's a trippy R-rated comic book landscape with Gannon has a Batman/Punisher who boinks all the ladies and beats people to a pulp and shoots people to a pulp, ya know to help the downtrodden. IT'S AMAZING.

A small town gas station owner is set-up with a false rape-charge by an insidious rich guy out to buy the land the gas station sits on cause a highway is coming right by it. The gas station owner calls Gannon who's pretty famous for ass-kicking to come help him. Gannon likes ass-kicking so he rolls into town and faces off with a nasty killer and all sorts of goons. People die in horrible ways, people act like no humans ever have and Gannon is near superhuman in his ability to murder folk. The women  have it the worse in the book and none of them are particularly believable, so if you have a problem with that you might want to skip it. I prefer authors with distinct voices and Ballenger had that in aplomb. More then anything it reminded me of a 70's version of Carroll John Daly's Race Williams and Robert Leslie Bellem's Dan Turner stories. All three writers liked lighting fast-paced stories, their own vernacular and tough guy heroes. I'll be shelling out the cash of Gannon #1 fairly quickly. It's a shame Ballenger seemingly didn't produce more then a handful of novels but he wrote a lot for the sweat mags. I suppose he wouldn't be everyone's taste but if you like you mayhem with a little knowing humor you could do worse.

Frank Scarpetta was a lot of different guys, "Slaughter-House" Scarpetta was Russell Smith, who wrote a fair number of Marksman/Sharpshooter novels. This was my first Smith novel and it won't be my last. This was a bloody, goofy seat-of-the-pants affair that through logic out the window and replaced it was brains on the floor, fishing line used a grappling hooks and .38's, .45s, .357s, and .44's blowing Mafia's hoods heads, chest, and necks apart. Philip Magellan is the Marksman when he's not Johnny Rock The Sharpshooter. They are the same guy, plus they are also Robert Briganti AKA "The Assassin." Go to Lynn Monroe Books for the full-scoop on the ins and outs of The Marksman/Sharpshooter/Assassin series and a lot of the work that Peter McCurtin did as a writer and as an editor.

Magellan goes back to a carnival where he was a trick-shooter and since his new occupation is mafia buster the mafia is pulling strong arm moves and wanting protection money from said carnival. Magellan is pissed off by this and shoots a bunch of goons and starts an all-out war between carnies and the mob (I wish, that'd been cool) but he does get a lot of carnies killed in the process including the woman owner who's son is along for the ride, as Robin to Magellan's Batman. He comes in pretty handy as he casually owns a sloppily deactivated mortar that comes in handy when they want to blow a mob-honcho's house to pieces. Also luckily Magellan knows a place where the mortar shells are kept and also has a key for the building. That's some good luck. The book moves a fast clip of shootings told in grizzly detail. Magellan doesn't get laid which is a change of pace from the usual paperback hero, he seems to get his rocks off with the mafia-murdering he does. Really the book didn't make a whole lot of sense but the characters were wonderfully colorful and the plot is simply "death to bad guys." As a potato chip, the book rates very high. Russell Smith has made me a fan, I'm glad I have more of his work in the series and one of his stand alone's "Montego" as Robert Dupont.