They Don't Dance Much is a novel by James Ross that was published in 1940 and earned the approval of Raymond Chandler, no less. But it didn't do much commercially, and it wasn't until the 1970s that a reprint appeared, with an afterword by George V. Higgins, which re-ignited interest in Ross. More recently it was reprinted again, with an intro by Daniel Woodrell. Even so, it's a book which I think deserves to be better known.
The pace of the story is leisurely, and at first I wasn't overly impressed, but gradually I began to find Ross's laconic prose hypnotic. The story is told in the first person by Jack, whose family farm in North Carolina isn't making any money. As a result he finds himself forced to work for Smut Milligan, who runs a petrol station which he soon develops into a roadhouse.
Smut is a brilliantly evoked character, a man not totally devoid of charm, but utterly selfish and extremely cruel. He involves Jack in a robbery which turns, during a very chilling scene, into a case of torture and murder. Equally shocking to a modern reader is the way the black characters in the book are portrayed; but Ross is telling us something important about the nature of race relations in the South during the Depression era. His observations about relations between men and women are equally acute: there is only one significant female character, a typical femme fatale, but there is a very funny scene when a group of men discuss an agony columnist's advice to young women.
Long before the story came to its bleak conclusion, I was persuaded that Chandler, Higgins and Woodrell were absolutely right to admire this book. It's not perfect - it was a first novel and Ross, disillusioned, never published another - but it's memorable. Woodrell describes it as "country noir", and it's an apt characterisation.