By my reckoning, this superb first (and only) novel by James Ross has had five lives: a first printing in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin in 1940, a Signet paperback (abridged) in 1952, a Southern Illinois University Press hardcover in 1975, a Popular Library paperback in 1976 and, now, this handsome Mysteriouspress.com paperback, an edition that is also available as an e-book for $9.99. All that would seem more than enough to secure the novel’s place in American literature, hard-boiled-mystery division, but quite the contrary: Despite having been praised by Raymond Chandler and countless others along the way, “They Don’t Dance Much” remains pretty much as unknown to the reading public today as it has been throughout the past three-quarters of a century.
This is a rank injustice, though I am scarcely the first to file that complaint; George V. Higgins said as much (though not very coherently) in his afterword to the 1975 edition, and Daniel Woodrell says the same (far more clearly) in his introduction to this one. To be sure, many books of genuine merit have never found the readership they deserve, but this one causes me particular grief because for about a decade, beginning in the mid-1960s, its author was my newspaper colleague, drinking buddy and treasured friend. Born in a small town in North Carolina in 1911, Jim Ross was nearly three decades older than I, but we hit it off. We both loved books, baseball and bourbon, and we loved to talk about the first two while drinking the third, usually in Jim’s little apartment on leafy Fisher Park Circle in Greensboro.