Thursday, January 02, 2020

A “Lost” Dennis Novel Makes Its Debut

(Editor’s note: You have to admire the single-minded determination and industry of Calabasas, California, author Lee Goldberg. After being first introduced, in 2013, to the work of deceased and long-forgotten novelist Ralph Dennis—and finding that he loved it—Goldberg set out to resurrect Dennis’ literary output through his own independent publishing company, Brash Books. Over the past couple of years, Brash has reissued all 12 of Dennis’ crime novels starring Jim Hardman, an Atlanta, Georgia, cop turned private eye—with a previously unpublished 13th installment in the series, All Kinds of Ugly, due out in early February. In addition, Goldberg has brought back into circulation a handful of Dennis’ non-series novels; and drawing from “a suitcase full of unpublished manuscripts” the author left behind at his death more than 30 years ago, he has expanded Dennis’ oeuvre. One of those “new” novels was The Spy in a Box, published in December. The other is Dust in the Heart, a “disturbing” police procedural that’s finally being released today. In the essay below, Goldberg recalls the circuitous path Dust in the Heart followed to finally seeing print.)

Dust in the Heart was Ralph Dennis’ final manuscript. It was completed only a few months before his death in 1988. He was a writer no longer at the top of his game, beaten by his demons and his failures, and it showed in the typewritten manuscript.

I’ve now read most of Ralph’s published and unpublished work. So, for me, reading and editing this book was a revealing glimpse into Ralph’s personality and creative process. Dust in the Heart is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, made up of bits and pieces of his other unpublished manuscripts, primarily a book entitled Just Child’s Play, which itself was stitched together from his prior published and unpublished work.

The hero of Just Child’s Play is Phil Hannah, an ex-Atlanta police detective who moves to a small-town force after the long, grueling death of his wife from cancer (a relationship that is lifted from the back story of a key character in his 1975 novel Atlanta, which Brash Books republished last year as The Broken Fixer). The detective investigates the rape and murder of a teenage girl and has a very rushed romance, the substance of which is lifted almost entirely from Ralph’s 1979 novel MacTaggart’s War (and that I largely omitted from our revised edition of the book, entitled The War Heist). The hero is aided in his detecting by a young deputy, who is almost identical to the young deputy in Dust in the Heart.

Many of the relationships and politics of the town in Just Child’s Play are replicated in Dust in the Heart, which also borrows a key plot point from Kane #2, an unpublished sequel to Ralph’s 1976 novel Deadman’s Game (both of which I combined and republished as A Talent for Killing). In Kane #2, the hero pursues the man who raped and murdered two young boys, and who is being protected by the government. Ralph lifted the same situation for Dust in the Heart.

Just Child’s Play is a deeply flawed and often incoherent book that justifiably never attracted a publisher. But there must have been something about the central concept—the heart-broken, small-town police detective seeking redemption and love while pursuing a child-murder investigation—that intrigued Ralph, because he ultimately gave it a second shot.

(Left) Author Ralph Dennis

For Dust in the Heart, Ralph recast the Atlanta detective as Wilt Drake, an injured war hero who is abandoned by his wife. And Ralph swapped out the romance for a new one that he seemingly lifted from Gunsmoke. But that wasn’t the only thing Ralph may have lifted from that long-running TV western series. In Gunsmoke, Marshal Matt Dillon enforces the law in Dodge City, Kansas, with the help of his eager young deputy, Chester Goode … and is romantically involved with Miss Kitty, the local madam and saloon owner. He also often seeks the wise counsel of ornery old Doc Adams, the town’s physician.

In Dust in the Heart, Wilt is Matt Dillon, Deputy Joe is Chester, stripper Diane is Miss Kitty, and Doc is, well, Doc. Ralph even gave Wilt the limp that actor James Arness, who played Dillon, had as a result of a real-life war injury.

And perhaps there’s also a message in the hero’s name. The hero of Ralph’s first novel (1974’s Atlanta Deathwatch) was Jim Hardman. The hero of his last book is Wilton “Wilt” Drake. From a Hard man, to a Wilted man. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

I struggled over whether to publish Dust in the Heart or to keep it in a drawer. The original manuscript was nearly 100,000 words and it was a mess … and yet, there was still something haunting, melancholy, and powerful about the book that wouldn’t let me go. I knew that Ralph was passionate about this novel. He told a newspaper reporter, and several people who were close to him, that he’d put a lot of work into it and had high hopes that it would be his comeback. It was also his final novel. Given all of those factors, I felt we had to release it to complete the full arc of his literary career.

So I dove into the manuscript, found the essence of the characters and the spine of the story … and began reshaping the book around that. I cut more than 30,000 words, including many long, irrelevant asides unrelated to the characters or the story, as well as several gratuitous, explicit sex scenes between a deputy and his rich, older lover, and other scenes with secondary characters that took place outside of the hero’s point of view, or that were repetitive, didn’t further the plot, or slowed the pace. I also fixed some tracking errors and other common mistakes that all writers make in their initial drafts.

I believe that the final, published draft of Dust in the Heart is a strong police procedural, dark and haunting, and a worthy capstone to Ralph’s career. But what really makes it special, at least for scholars and admirers of this author’s work, is the fascinating insight it offers into Ralph Dennis himself, an alcoholic who never found a woman to love him, who was reduced to working as a clerk in a used bookstore after a decade of being rejected by publishers, and who would soon die without achieving the recognition that he deserved.

No comments: