Murder’s Not an Odd Job (Hardman #6)
by Ralph Dennis
Publisher – Popular Library
Rating – 6/10
Summary – Hardman is back – again. In the sixth of twelve installments, unlicensed Atlanta private eye Jim Hardman investigates why an heir to a fortune has chosen to live on Atlanta’s skid row. The journey is a lot of fun and there is some strong prose in this one, but the plot seems patched together. This is an enjoyable book – as long as you have realistic expectations.
Review – Men’s action novels offer a lot of tawdry thrills, provided you can find a book that is worth reading. The problem with most of these books is that they are terribly written. So, when I find a good hardboiled series, I like to stick with it. The twelve Hardman novels, published from 1974 to 1977, are one of the best series in this déclassé genre.
The premise is simple and will be familiar to fans of hardboiled books – Jim Hardman is a disgraced, ex-Atlanta cop who teams with his partner, black, ex-pro football player Hump Evans to take on “unlicensed private investigations.” A lot of their jobs are pretty bad – at times, they even deal drugs. It sounds unpromising, but author Ralph Dennis manages to make these novels a lot of fun.
In Murder’s Not an Odd Job, Hardman and Hump are prowling Atlanta’s skid row on a night on the town. After getting caught up in a bar fight, they find themselves in the case of a missing heir from one of Atlanta’s “best” families. One of the best things about the Hardman novels is that Dennis knows skid row quite well. The book’s first two paragraphs set the scene and the tone –
“It wasn’t our kind of place. Not that Hump and I are snobs. Far from it. But this one belonged to the winos and their drinking doesn’t have a red hair’s worth of fun in it. It’s all business: get as much as you can and then get it down before somebody comes over and asks for part of it. That kind of place, with the bare bones of survival sticking out, the smells and sounds of it.
Hump and I had been doing part of town, the underside of Atlanta. The last stop had been the Fairmont, an old hotel that looks as if it might have been a movie theatre once. There’s a lounge in back. To get to it you’ve got to cross a parking lot that looks as if it might have been designed by a team of muggers. Nobody’d bothered us and we spent about an hour there. There were three topless dancers and we stayed as long as we did because we got interested in the games being played by two of them. From where we sat they looked like a bull dyke and her calf. Trying to figure it out kept us interested through three or four beers.” (p. 5).
While Dennis is not attempting to teach readers any lessons, occasionally one finds surprising insights. According to online sources, Dennis had a drinking problem. Therefore, the following passage – in which a man describes the winos at a seedy bar – resonates –
“It’s not the way you always hear it. These men aren’t down on their luck. That’s what they’ll tell you. The truth is that they’ve given up on themselves” (p. 7).
Weak Plot & Other Issues
Murder’s Not an Odd Job, is very readable, but it’s not one of my favorite books in the series. Plotting can be a problem in the Hardman books and this one is particularly weak. Taken individually, the book has several strong, action-filled sequences. But the scenes feel “pieced together”; Dennis throws the reader several red herrings.
For instance, the book takes the reader through multiple settings, but the first hundred pages are so contain many passages that do little to advance the plot. Only after page 100 does Dennis stop leading the reader down blind alleys. Dennis wrote in a hurry – publishing seven Hardman novels in 1974 – so it’s unsurprising that a bit of editing could have improved this one.
A critic could also note that Hardman and Hump aren’t exactly enlightened in their attitudes toward women. Consider this description of a forty-ish woman-
“Beth entered from a bedroom beyond about the time we arrived. … Even in black she looked good. All that prime, aged meat. It was getting to me even though I knew that young was better and I knew that she probably hadn’t noticed that I had a fly or a zipper” (p. 59).
Fortunately, Dennis manages to make this novel satisfying despite its many flaws. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so I will say only that Dennis concludes by setting up a dramatic shootout that makes good use of both the characters and the setting. The reader who seeks low-rent thrills goes away happy.
Seek Them Out
The Hardman books are cheap paperbacks and they are getting a bit old. I found a set of all twelve online for about $45. My copy of Murder’s Not an Odd Job is yellowing and even has a Kent cigarette ad in the center. For hardboiled junkies it’s worth ordering them over the ‘net, at least until some publisher decides to reissue them. While Murder’s Not is not my favorite book in the series, it’s still pretty good and will give first-time readers an idea of the Hardman series’ strengths and weaknesses.