Jack McDonald loses his farm and everything that went with it, save for the debt, and he wanders through the evening until he comes to Smut Milligan’s roadhouse just outside of town. Smut sells him some illegal corn whiskey and offers him a job as the roadhouse cashier. With nowhere else to go, Jack joins on the expanding operation and soon bears witness to the depths of humanity's greed, corruption, and vengeance. Set deep in the south during the Great Depression with a wide cast of believable, rough-and-tumble characters, James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much is almost Shakespearian in its exposure of the darkness of the human soul, combining the best elements of Raymond Chandler, Flannery O’Connor, James M Cain, Jim Thompson, and even hints of William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic aesthetics.
People may not often hear Ross’ name beside the likes of these writers, but they should, because James Ross is at least as good, and in some cases better, than his more celebrated contemporaries.
Mysterious Press has recently re-released They Don’t Dance Much, and even though it’s not a “new” book, I’m going to go ahead and gamble on the statement that this is the best book of 2013 … or at least the best book of 2013 that was written over 70 years ago. Mysterious Press (associated with the Mysterious Bookshop in lower Manhattan, a GREAT place for crime, mystery, and pulp books, by the way) brought Ross’ book back to life with a hell of an eye-catching cover (admittedly one of the main reasons why I bought it) and the book did not fail from first word to last.
The story is masterfully orchestrated, with seemingly random and innocuous characters and story points slowly forming into key elements of later crimes and saving graces. Nothing feels forced or gimmicky, and even the few points that you can “see coming a mile away” feel written for that exact purpose. Tension is built with well-placed turns and strong, realistic dialogue. Casual chatter slowly turns into motives, which turns into action, and then the inevitable unraveling of the best laid plans into a life of threats, worry, and long nights staring into the darkness as the other shoe threatens to fall at any time. Friend becomes enemies, and enemies become happenstance saviors. It’s a real shame Ross never published another novel, because if he had written as many books as Cain, Chandler, or Hemingway, he’d be widely recognized as one of the greats, the original Southern Noir master.
But you know what? Even with just one novel under his belt, that’s just what James Ross is anyway. They Don’t Dance Much a tough, down-in-the-dirt look at aching desire, insatiable greed, and southern criminalities. It’s a 5 out of 5, a 10 out of 10, however you want to call it. Go get it.