Friday, February 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Hardman #1 - Atlanta Deathwatch by Ralph Dennis

Despite its somewhat unfortunate series name (right up there with The Penetrator, I think), this opening volume in the HARDMAN series is some pretty solid, gritty, sleazy, hard-boiled goodness. I decided to pick up Atlanta Deathwatch after author Lee Goldberg repeatedly sung the series' praises on Facebook, and I was able to acquire a copy cheaply via Amazon. Sadly, it being forty years old and not printed on the highest-quality materials, my copy is pretty fragile. The first page or two fell out while I was reading it, and I had to be careful in holding the book open by the middle of the pages lest the pages start separating from the spine at the bottom of the book.

Hardman (that's actually his last name, not just the series title) is an ex-cop, kicked off the force for dating a woman later revealed to be involved in an organized crime money laundering scheme. Hardman himself was a "clean cop", but once given the boot, he turned to any job that paid the bills. As the story opens, he's tailing a co-ed named Emily Campbell, whose father is a politician concerned that she's getting mixed up with a bad crowd. Hardman follows her to a blacks-only bar, and winds up getting the crap beat out of him by a couple of black guys who show up in a car after Hardman gets eyeballed by one of the bar's occupants. Strong-armed into dropping the job, Hardman bows out and goes to work for another employer, taking a trip to NYC where he picks up a briefcase full of heroin!

Turns out Hardman will do pretty much anything for cash, and his partner, Hump Evans, a towering black ex-football player, feels the same way. They've been making the NYC drug run regularly along with their small-time "problem solving" gigs. When Hardman and Evans get back to Atlanta, they find out Emily Campbell has been murdered, and soon all signs point to a former boyfriend, Eddie Spense, a troublemaker with a history of violent tendencies and bad behavior. Soon, Hardman finds himself working for a Black Mafia kingpin known only as The Man, a shadowy figure who, we discover, has been romantically involved with Emily for a while now.

The plot from this point on gets fairly complex, and I don't want to give away any spoilers, so I'll end the synopsis here. The book cover erroneously labels Hardman as a PI, and at one point Hardman's former partner comments on how he shouldn't really be doing PI work, since he isn't one. The legally ambiguous nature of Hardman's activities is one of the more amusing aspects of the novel. Early on, Hardman's former partner warns him that he better not find Hardman carrying a gun, but then later on has no problem with it when Hardman kills someone trying to kill him first, and at the end of the novel, Hardman even goes on a raid of sorts with Hump Evans and another plainclothes officer, the three of them armed to the teeth. I do like how Hardman has one foot on either side of the law, and - typical for these kinds of sleazy, hard-boiled stories - everyone seems to be more or less okay with that arrangement.

There's a whole laundry list of little gems to be found in this story. Hardman and Hump are always - always - drinking, everything from beer to wine to Scotch to cognac. There's one scene near the end of the book where they're on a stakeout, tailing one of the conspirators, and passing back and forth a half-pint bottle of Hennessy. This being the 70's, and these two clearly having cast-iron livers, no one ever gets so much as a buzz on, the cognac merely providing warmth on a cold night-time stakeout. Practically every time they return to Hump's apartment, the two of them break out a bottle of J&B scotch or a few beers. After all, what good is a paid sleuth if he's not half-sauced all the time?

I also dig the way the story handles guns. Weapons are described very simply, but everyone's got a basic, functional piece tucked away somewhere. Hardman carries around an old Colt .38 Police Positive, and Hump has a .38 Hardman once pocketed off a drunk - a "clean" gun, so to speak. Hump also has a fancy double-barreled shotgun given to him as a gift in his football days. Eddie Spence has a .45 automatic - possibly taken while he was in the Navy - and random hoods have .32 caliber "Saturday Night Specials". Then there's pump shotguns here and there, plus a "machine pistol" described as WW2-era German, probably an unlisted "souvenir" MP-40. The "world" so to speak of the novel gives the feel that everyone has access, somehow, to a "piece" tucked away in a shoebox or a sock drawer somewhere.

There's also a lot of racial tension in the story. On more than one occasion, the "partnership" between Hardman and Hump is questioned, with people typically thinking Hump works for Hardman, rather than with him, but Hardman always makes it clear that they are partners, on equal footing. Hump is also shown to be Hardman's equal in terms of his ability to come up with ideas and angles to the investigation - he's not just a big bruiser, he's smart, too. Things also get complicated when Hardman and Hump deal with The Man, especially with respect to The Man's status with his own men and how they view his dealings with this white ex-cop and his black partner. There's another layer of tension when it is clear not all of The Man's underlings liked the idea of their boss in love with a white woman. I could list many more examples, but suffice to say, the novel handles race in a pretty sophisticated way, especially given it was written in 1974.

I will agree with a couple of comments I've seen on Facebook, that the HARDMAN series looks superficially like a "Men's Adventure" series, especially the look of the cover, the series title and names for the individual books - everything looks like it could be a much more action-oriented series. However, the level of violence is pretty low, and actually a lot of the book's body count takes place off-camera. This is much more of a hard-boiled PI / cop mystery thriller than Men's Adventure. Still, I found the book highly enjoyable, and a very fast read once I got into it - I read the last two-thirds of the book in one evening. I'll probably pick up the next book in the series, although I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but if Atlanta Deathwatch is typical of the series, it'll be a fun, sleazy ride.


Anonymous said...

Hardman and Hump? Really?

Jim Cornelius

RJR said...

Don't let the names fool you. This was a damned good series.


Sean McLachlan said...

Gotta love those classic covers!

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Mel Dawn said...

I know what you mean about having so many books. I've had to buy at least ten new shelves this year from bookshelves atlanta ga

Lee Goldberg said...

Your review really captures what makes ATLANTA DEATHWATCH, and the whole series, so special.

As you know, Jack, Brash Books will be re-releasing all 12 Hardman novels, starting with the first four in December, and the rest through 2019. The Hardman books include a terrific introduction by Joe R. Lansdale...and subsequent books include afterwords by Richard A. Moore, Ben Jones and Paul Bishop. The first two titles in the series, Atlantla Deathwatch and The Charleston Knife is Back in Town are already available for preorder in paperback and ebook on Amazon, iBook, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman…and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.

I can’t wait to hear what you think of the books as they roll out… and I hope you will spread the word. We want Ralph Dennis to get the recognition and readership he’s long deserved.