RARA-AVIS: Ralph Dennis

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 18 Jan 2003

In a message dated 1/18/03 4:02:32 AM Eastern Standard Time, owner-rara-avis@icomm.ca writes:

 Some guy is selling all 12 of the Hardman books on eBay. No
 takers so far, but at under 3 bucks a book, this is a pretty
 good deal. I know that Richard Moore met Dennis a time or
 two. Here's what the seller has to say:
 "Ralph Dennis (died 1988) was an excellent writer, who was
 poorly marketed and never developed the following he
 deserved. I've read that Dennis worked at a used book store
 in Atlanta (Oxford Books) and died broke in his sleep on a
 cot in the back room of a bar. He was a serious drinker who
 knew the streets from his own down-and-out life. That may
 explain why his stories are so good - he knew the alley life
 and it helped him make his story backgrounds absolutely
 Bill Crider
 - -- >>

Actually, I only met Ralph Dennis one time but I feel like my life intertwined with his more than once. I would give anything if I had had a chance to bend an elbow with Ralph and swap a few stories. He knew the old Atlanta like I did and we could have spent many a happy alcoholic hour together. All I had to do was to make the offer and I am certain that such a happening would have happened. But I didn't, for no particular reason, and he was dead before I could follow up.

I first heard of Ralph Dennis from Jud Sapp, who was a principal of an elementary school in Atlanta, and a huge Rex Stout fan and collector. He is a coauthor of the Rex Stout bibliography. I lived in Atlanta at the time and he found my name among Stout fans and called every Richard Moore in the phone book until he found me. He then invited me to be a part of an Atlanta
"Wolfe Pack" with regular meetings of Stout fans. At one of our gatherings, which featured Nero Wolfe radio programs and dishes from the Wolfe cookbook, Sapp gave me a copy of a Ralph Dennis novel PIMP FOR THE DEAD, which is number four in the Hardman series.

I was struck by the oddness of having this primary school principal giving me such a book. Sapp was also a member of a group calle DAPA-EM and urged me to join. When we last met after I moved to the Washington DC area, he again urged me to join. Finally I did join and met Bill Crider and so many other dear friends. Alas, Jud never knew he was successful in his recruiting as he died of a quickly moving cancer between my joining and the next mailing of DAPA-EM. And what is DAPA-EM? It is the Trilateral Commission of mystery fandom. What else can I tell you.

So I read PIMP FOR THE DEAD and loved it. Yes, it displayed signs of hurried writing but it also had a winning lead character, interesting secondary characters and most of all, a very precise knowledge of Atlanta--the same city I roamed and mined for detail. I could see through all of his name changes and when he described a block, I knew it down to the last brick.

At some point during the 12 book run of the Hardman series, the Atlanta Constitution ran a feature on him that included a picture. To me, struggling young writer, he was a comrade who had made it. He had the paperback series going and he had a nice hardback book coming out. Breakthrough!

Well, friends, I recommend MacTAGGART'S WAR (Holt Rinehart, Winston 1979) to you but it was not the breakthrough novel Dennis hoped for. In fact, it was damn near the end for him as a published writer but he could not have known that at the time.

Oxford Books was a great bookstore. I began going to the original in a shopping center on Clairmont and continued when they moved to the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. Eventually, they went from being a new book store to including used books. Even better for me. So after I moved to Washington, I would include Oxford Books on my stops. One day I thought the guy behind the counter at the used section looked familiar. It clicked eventually that this was Ralph Dennis and I recognized him from the picture in the Atlanta newspaper story.

I introduced myself and he was taken aback to be recognized but pleased at the same time. I did a writeup of this meeting for DAPA-EM and was then asked by Mystery Scene to reprint it. I was shocked because I didn't think anyone beyond the members read my submissions. Eventually I gave my permission to reprint with the omission of one fact. Behind the counter where Ralph stood, there was an open bottle of Ten High Bourbon.

But back to my one meeting with Ralph. He noticed that there were several novels by Richard Stark about the thief Parker in what I was buying. He made a comment and I then asked if he was Ralph Dennis. Flattered, he said yes. Then he told me that he had written a novel with a hero that would make Parker seem like a pussy but after first being accepted was now rejected. He told me about several unpublished novels that were better than anything he had published before.

We had a nice long talk and he was full of the near misses and other rejections of recent years. All of this took place as other store personnel buzzed about us with censoring looks. I felt guilty for taking up his time and perhaps getting him in trouble as other staff members had hovered hear us during our conversation.

Some months later I went back and he wasn't there. At the cash register there was a Ralph Dennis memorial sign and I was shocked to learn of his death.

Time passed and some years later an evening came when I was drinking and thinking and I picked up the phone and put my old reporter instincts to work.
 I tracked down Ralph's sister in Michigan in a UP town where she owned and ran a restaurant. She loved her brother. As his situation and his health deteriorated, she begged him to come live with her. She felt she owed him that much for he had meant so much to her growing up. He refused out of pride. He died. There was a memorial in his honor at an Atlanta bar.

The day will come when I get the energy and the motivation to track the number again but anyone else is invited to beat me to it. You guys have no idea how many boxes of memories I would have to sort through to find these.

Richard Moore

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 18 Jan 2003 EST