Rating – 6/10
Deadman’s Game by Ralph Dennis
Ralph Dennis (1931-1988) was a hard-as-nails Atlanta writer who won a following in the 1970s by publishing a series of novels featuring Jim Hardman. Though the series is largely forgotten,a few faithful fans wait for Dennis to receive his posthumous due.
In 1975, Dennis took a short break from Hardman and attempted to create another series starring an ex-CIA assassin named Kane. The backstory was that Kane had been the CIA’s top killer before a botched job in Saigon erased his memory. The CIA tried to “retire” Kane, but he soon began hiring himself out for private hits. In the novels, Kane would hunt his intended victims while the CIA hunted Kane.
The idea has great potential, but only one book ever saw the light of day, 1975’s Deadman’s Game. (Though Dennis wrote a second Kane novel, it has never been published). What’s left is a decent action novel that might have been the foundation for a good series.
At the beginning of Deadman’s Game, Kane is living in Atlanta. A young man asks Kane to find out what became of his missing brother who was last seen in a small Georgia town. (Curiously, this puts Kane in the roles of detective and assassin, but no one said that the guy was one dimensional). Given the book’s opening, you know right away that Deadman’s Game is going to be one of those “corrupt small town” novels.
Kane journeys to the mythical Georgia town of Ansonville where he encounters all manner of malfeasance. Meanwhile, the CIA dispatches its down assassin to end Kane’s freelance career.
Dennis was a talented writer working in a low-rent genre. His skill is apparent in Deadman’s Game. He creates a vivid, believable small-southern-town setting; at times, his descriptions are so good that you can almost hear the wind through the pines. Also, Dennis occasionally slows the breakneck pace and shows off his writing chops. Consider this dialogue between two men who are preparing to fight for their lives:
Off to the right, where the lake curved away behind a cluster of dark pines, an owl hooted. Once, then again.
“That’s the death sound,” Hardy Winston said.
“Only if you hear it when you’re by yourself,” Kane said. He turned and saw that the huge man was shivering, his eyes closed tight against the darkness (page 174).
Unfortunately, while I am a big Dennis fan, I have to admit the Deadman’s Game is not his best work. The book is choppy. Dennis was trying to create a series and includes a lot of background. However, he also describes the Ansonville job and the two plots don’t mesh very well. Another problem is that Dennis mentions Kane’s memory problems, but fails to develop that plot fully, either.
More damningly, Deadman’s Game is also a little flat. At 186 pages, the book does too much in too little space. There is loads of sex and violence, but the reader never really feels engaged in any of it. If there were more character development, the reader might care a bit more.
For more on Dennis, check out these excellent blogs:
In the end, Dennis is well worth checking out if you are fan of hardboiled fiction. However, Deadman’s Game is not the best place to start.