Hardman #1: Atlanta Deathwatch
By Ralph Dennis
Rating - 7/10
Summary - In Atlanta Deathwatch, Ralph Dennis sets the pattern for the twelve-book Hardman series: flawed characters enmeshed in sex, violence, and greed on Atlanta’s meanest streets.
Review - A few years ago, I got a copy of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s 1001 Midnights, which is a book that reviews hundreds of mystery novels. They mention the Hardman series by Ralph Dennis and recommend it. On their recommendation, I tracked down three of the Hardman novels (#2 – The Charleston Knife’s Back in Town, #5 – Down Among the Jocks, and #11- The Last of the Armageddon Wars) and I thought that they were great, light reading.
The other day, I was loafing on EBay when I came across a great deal – all twelve Hardman books for $40 (including shipping). I bought them right away. When the books arrived, there was no doubt that I would read Atlanta Deathwatch first.
Readers can enjoy the Hardman novels in any order. (Certainly, we are not discussing “fine literature” here – thank goodness). But Atlanta Deathwatch definitely sets the tone for the series and provides some background and character development that are lacking in the other books (at least those that I have read).
Jim Hardman is the title character, a disgraced Atlanta cop who works as an “unlicensed private investigator”; in other words, he picks up whatever shady work he can find. His sidekick is Hump Evans, a towering, black ex-pro football player. The relationship between Hardman and Hump is well written, and Dennis devised his characters long before the black partner became a cliche.
Atlanta Deathwatch has a basic plot that includes a few twists – a white Georgia politician’s daughter falls in love with a black criminal; then she ends up a murder victim. The criminal hires Hardman to find out what happened. In the Hardman novels, plot is often secondary to enjoying Dennis’ vivid descriptions of Atlanta’s underbelly.
Even if one judges Atlanta Deathwatch against other pulp novels, there are a few drawbacks. First, the novel is almost too hardboiled; Hardman and Hump aren’t always likable, as they:
- deal drugs,
- make sexist remarks (women are “trim”),
- spend much of their time drunk, etc.
(In later novels, Dennis made both characters more engaging).
Also, Dennis wrote in a hurry – publishing seven Hardman novels in 1974. Unsurprisingly, the books can read like rough drafts in places. For instance, in Atlanta Deathwatch, Hardman says “I felt like somebody had crapped on me, and then turned off the water so I couldn’t take a shower” (p. 190).
While not War and Peace, the Hardman novels are fast-paced with lots of sex, violence, drugs, and other bad behaviors – all of the things that guys like. These forgotten paperbacks are terrific beach reads – and Atlanta Deathwatch is a great place to start.