My expensive, life-changing addiction began six years ago when a man approached me in a nameless hotel in a city I don’t remember.
“You’re really going love this,” Bill Crider said, almost in a whisper. “And I’m not going to let you leave here until you buy it.”
We were standing in front of a used bookseller’s table at a writer’s conference. I looked down and saw that Bill was holding a yellowed, brittle paperback out to me. It was entitled Hardman #1, The Charleston Knife is Back in Town by Ralph Dennis. The slug line across the top of the cover read “Brace yourself for broads, bullets, and bare-fisted action!”
It was obvious from the numbered title that it was one of those cheap, men’s action adventure paperbacks, a genre I knew well, having written, under the pseudonym “Ian Ludlow,” a series called .357 Vigilante in the mid-1980s for the same publisher that released this book. While there were some gems in the genre, most of them were hack work, badly written excuses for explicit sex and graphic violence that were sold in grocery store spinner racks nationwide. And a book called “Hardman”—wink, wink, nudge nudge—promised to be among the worst of them.
Bill must have seen the skepticism on my face so he smiled and said, “Trust me. You won’t regret it.”
This is how it often is with pushers. Have a taste, they say, it won’t hurt you.
And Bill was particularly good at pushing old paperbacks and forgotten authors. He was a kind, decent, warm man, an acclaimed author, and an expert on crime fiction. People trusted him. I trusted him…
I think you’ll enjoy the essay… and I strongly, enthusiastically, passionately recomment that you check out the HARDMAN novels.
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.
Ralph Dennis isn’t a household name… but I believe that he should be. He is widely considered among crime writers as a master of the genre, denied the recognition he deserved because his series of twelve Hardman books, which are beloved and highly sought-after collectables now, were poorly packaged in the 1970s by Popular Library as cheap men’s action-adventure paperbacks with numbered titles.
Even so, some top critics saw past the cheesy covers and noticed that he was producing work as good as John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald.
The New York Times praised the Hardman novels for “expert writing, plotting, and an unusual degree of sensitivity. Dennis has mastered the genre and supplied top entertainment.” The Philadelphia Daily News proclaimed Hardman “the best series around…”
Unfortunately, Popular Library didn’t take the hint and continued to present the series like hack work, dooming the novels to a short shelf-life and obscurity…except among generations of crime writers, like novelist Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series) and screenwriter Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon movies), who’ve kept Dennis’ legacy alive through word-of-mouth and by acknowledging his influence on their stellar work.