Mysterious Book Report They Don’t Dance MuchThey Don’t Dance Much by James Ross

Mysterious Press, Open Road Integrated Media, $14.99, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1-4532-9620-2

This week’s Mysterious Book Report is a blast from the past: a piece of crime fiction that was first published in 1940, but for some reason was never the big success it was expected to be with the general public, although it received great reviews from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Flannery O’Connor and others.  It is the work of a Greensboro, North Carolina newspaper reporter named James Ross, and it is the only novel he ever published.  It is considered to be the birth of a genre known as “Southern Noir.”   Kept alive by word of mouth through the years, its copyright was renewed in 1968, and has just been put back into print, part of the renaissance of out of print classics that’s now taking place via computer-driven revolution known simply as print on demand, wherein books can be economically produced as few as one at a time.

They Don’t Dance Much, by James Ross is, in the words of Raymond Chandler: A sleazy, corrupt, but completely believable story of a North Carolina town. In it a bankrupt small-time farmer named Jack McDonald is down to his last dollar. Its 1940, and the end of the depression.  Heavily in debt with no prospects and no crop because he’s been wiped out by the boll weevil and he’s a desperate man, McDonald accepts a job in a new roadhouse owned by a seedy, disreputable and thuggish acquaintance of his named Smut Milligan . . . a man who’ll do anything for money, up to and including murder.  Things look promising for the new business.  Between the food, moonshine, gasoline, gambling and the little cabins out back that rent for a dollar several times a night . . . good money is coming in.  But then debts, thugs and the law start coming in too . . . and the husband of the married woman Smut is involved with.  It’s a fast trip down a rough, rocky red dirt road, to perdition and Hell, driven by lust and greed and fueled by blood.  If you’re a fan of Southern Noir, or any of the dark gloomy tales from the wild side of crime fiction, be sure to get a copy of this pioneering, genre influencing work.  Yeah, it’s worth the trouble because, yes, it’s really that damn good!! A CAVEAT:  This was written in 1940.  Attitudes and speech were different for all races.  If you’re concerned about political correctness and offended by the casual and frequent use of racial slurs . . . you probably won’t want to read it, except perhaps as a stark example of what it was like in the rural south back then.


John Dwaine McKenna