Memphis Ribs

Memphis Ribs

4.3 3
by Gerald Duff

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It's May in Memphis, and four bloody murders occur on the eve of the International BBQ Contest and the Cotton Carnival: a conventioneer is stabbed at an ATM machine, a gang leader and his girlfriend are executed, and a wealthy local businessman is killed in his own home while his bodyguard is napping outside the door. It's up to homicide detective J.W. Ragsdale to


It's May in Memphis, and four bloody murders occur on the eve of the International BBQ Contest and the Cotton Carnival: a conventioneer is stabbed at an ATM machine, a gang leader and his girlfriend are executed, and a wealthy local businessman is killed in his own home while his bodyguard is napping outside the door. It's up to homicide detective J.W. Ragsdale to solve these seemingly unconnected crimes without scaring away the tourists who are arriving in droves. That's not going to be easy. Ragsdale's investigation pits him against a crack-dealing gang in the midst of a bloody drug war, a Memphis BBQ king struggling to hold on to his crumbling empire, a shotgun-wielding assassin, an East Coast mobster with a taste for BBQ and the blues, and the newly crowned Maid of Cotton, who will do anything to keep her tiara.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pale-eyed, sandy-haired, "just on the edge of... redneck," Memphis homicide detective J.W. Ragsdale eats and banters his way through a rollicking if unoriginal tale of drugs, death and the redemptive powers of barbecue pork. On the eve of Memphis's big f te, the Cotton Carnival, a group of apparently unconnected people are murdered. Wealthy white socialite Aires Saxon, father of this year's Cotton Maid, is found dead at home, his bodyguard dozing upstairs. A drunken, white conventioner is stabbed at a cash machine, and three small-time, black street dealers are shot to death on Baby Street. When he realizes that sleuthing at the Saxons' Mississippi plantation will also allow him to satisfy his yen for catfishing at state expense, Ragsdale is off and running. The story that unfolds won't be unfamiliar to veteran mystery fans, but Duff retells it with gusto and humor. And when it comes to describing the flavor of barbecue as well as the sights and sounds of a festival, Duff gives Calvin Trillin a run for his money. Duff's also got the local dialect and dialogue down cold. With writing so good, however, readers may leave wishing he'd take on something more substantial next time out. (June)
Library Journal
Well-heeled shysters, in-fighting gang members, and overworked police share a very particular locale known as Memphis. Sergeant J.W. Ragsdale and partner Tyrone struggle to contain the rampaging Bone Family gang, which has begun trading drugs with a certain well-known "legitimate" businessman whose father has just been murdered. Murder, vandalism, some wild barbecue, and a few sexual escapades keep the novel jumping. Tense action, realistic dialog, intermittent humor, and somewhat novel surrounds make this a good buy for larger collections.

Product Details

Brash Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

For more than 125 years, Tennessee law has fixed the maximum penalty for stealing a hog at fifteen years in prison—three times greater than the penalty for involuntary manslaughter. No other element in Memphis society more effectively bridges the gaps of race, sex, age, socioeconomic status, religious belief and political philosophy than barbecue.

John Egerton in
Southern Food

"This is a slow operation," he said, as he checked a rack laden with dark brown shoulders. "You can't rush it. You have to know how to wait, and when to act—and when the time comes, you have to move fast and then wait some more. It's too tedious for most young people—they don't have the patience for it."

James Willis, Senior Cook
Leonard's Barbecue
Quoted in Southern Food

Chapter One

Midnight on Front Street in Memphis, and Franklin, Saxon was leaning up against the grill of his father's Lincoln Continental, watching five members of the Bones Family attack a Union Planter's Bank ATM with two sledgehammers. The stand-alone machine was newly installed and located in a part of the Bluff City away from the center of downtown. Franklin wondered if the executive in charge of that division of Union Planter's had guessed right about its profitability. It would probably do well in the daylight hours, nothing after nine p.m., of course, and pick-up again each morning when the sun rose to shine on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi. It was worth a try, probably, and Franklin wished the bank well inthe venture.

    Franklin Saxon did hope the Bones Family would get the ATM cracked open, though, soon, so he could finish his business with them and leave that deserted part of the city and get back to Midtown. The drinks he had had in the Peabody Hotel before, during and after his keynote speech to the medical equipment convention were dying on him, and with each bang of a sledgehammer against the face of the ATM, he was realizing how careless he had been to agree to meet with the Bones Family here.

    It had seemed droll at the time when their spokesman, one T-Bird, had said they needed to make a withdrawal, but now all Franklin Saxon felt was not amusement but rising impatience and a hint of growing anxiety. This first deal with the Bones Family was off to a twisted start, and Franklin felt a twinge begin just at the top of his nose between his eyes. It started to move up and into his forehead, and he stepped away from the front of the Lincoln and looked up and down Front Street, beginning to scratch at his temples with both hands. Not a headlight was in sight in either direction, but a deep need to move was rising up from Franklin's viscera with each clang of the sledgehammers.

    "Gentlemen," he called from the shadows where he had parked, "that hammering's not going to do it. I'll give you two more minutes, and then I will consider our deal to be off."

    "That's all we be needing," the one called T-Bird said. "We just prizing up the bottom now. Flash, he getting the forklift to tear it loose. See yonder?"

    "Tear it loose?" Franklin Saxon said, hearing an engine crank as he spoke and then, turning to look, seeing a forklift approaching from a construction site just behind the ATM, an area he had not noticed previously. "Look, this is not the way I want to do business."

    "We be putting the machine in the pickup bed," T-Bird said, pointing toward a Toyota truck parked on the sidewalk. "Then we give you the cash over yonder on Jackson behind the Piggly Wiggly store."

    "Oh," Franklin Saxon said. "I see. It's got to be quick, though. I'm leaving, and I'll drive by there in thirty minutes. One-half hour from now on the dot. Understand?"

    By the time he had said that, he had taken a couple of steps toward T-Bird and when he turned to get into the Lincoln, he saw a man staggering toward him on the sidewalk in the shadows of the building beyond the car. He was white and balding, carrying a sportcoat over his shoulder. He was obviously drunk and holding out one hand in front of him as though to tell Franklin to wait, don't tell me your name, I almost got it, it's right on the tip of my tongue.

    "Saxon," the man announced in a tone of triumph. "I know you. You're Mister Saxon."

    "No," Franklin said. "You're mistaken, I'm afraid."

    "Oh, yeah, sure," the man said, stopping and beginning to look toward the swarm of Bones Family members around the ATM, two with their backs turned to the machine, pushing hard against it, one directing the fork lift driver, and another preparing to slam a sledgehammer one more time against the lawful property of Union Planter's Bank.

    "You talked to us tonight at the convention, remember?" the man said. "About business conditions in the Delta. There in the Peabody." The man gave Franklin Saxon a big sales grin and paused as though waiting to be recognized. At the sound of a particularly well-placed sledgehammer blow from across the street, he turned to look at the ATM. "What're they doing over there, Mister Saxon?" he said. "That bunch of boys?"

    "Conditions in the Delta and here in Memphis are a lot worse than I led you to believe, I'm sorry to say, my friend," Franklin Saxon said, opening the door of the Lincoln. "Tell you what. Why don't you discuss them with my colleagues?"

    "T-Bird," Franklin went on, calling toward the Bones Family at work, "this gentleman wants to discuss economic trends with you and your group. See he learns what he needs to know, all right?"

    As Saxon pulled away in the Lincoln up Front Street, he could see through the rearview mirror the conventioneer beginning to run toward the buildings across the street with two Bones Family members following at a trot.

    He headed the car toward the next intersection, telling himself to be careful and to watch for drunk drivers on the way to Overton Park with its winding roads and dark stands of trees. Hardly the time for a fender-bender now.

    "Cool and calm," he said aloud, hearing the phrases his father had repeated to him each day of his life, "slow and steady does the trick. One step, then another." After this part of it tonight, he thought, Mister Barry Speed of points east will fly into the Delta, and that will be the next bit of new business I'll have to tend to. Right now, though, I'll get to Overton Park, he promised himself, park by the twelfth hole under those big red oaks, and give myself a little boost before I have to meet that bunch again.

    The old man was right about one thing, Franklin reflected as he drove up Madison, the speedometer steady on forty-five through the deserted streets of downtown Memphis, every new thing's a learning experience.

Chapter Two

The heat and humidity of May in Memphis had put a tight seal between the door and the frame again, so J.W. Ragsdale had to try twice before he could break loose from his house into the morning light. The weather started doing that sometime in the spring every year, and every time J.W. noticed the trouble he had getting outside the house on Tutwiler, he promised himself he'd borrow a chisel from somebody at the station and take care of it.

    But by the time he got back home each night, he'd forgotten the fact that water and sun were trying to entomb him in a rent house in Midtown and he just got a drink and went on to bed.

    I'll ask Delbert today, he told himself, and stepped out onto the porch to pick up the Commercial Appeal. Delbert Jackson liked to build birdhouses and whatever else homeowners in White Haven did on the weekends, so he was bound to have a spare chisel to bring into the division station in the big brown briefcase he always carried.

    The news girl had thrown the paper where she always did, just at the point when the sidewalk joined the porch, but this time it had landed up against a cardboard box positioned right in front of J.W. Ragsdale's front step.

    When J.W. leaned over, he saw that the box was filled to its top edges with dead magnolia leaves and buds that had blown from the big tree in his front yard over into the one next door.

    Mrs. Stoker had also left him a note fixed to one flap of the box with a clothes pin. J.W. dropped the wooden pin into his shirt pocket while he read the neighborly message. "Here's some of your trash, Sergeant Ragsdale," Mrs. Stoker said in a small even hand, "for you to dispose of properly. A police officer ought to know a good neighbor maintains property values. Handle your own trash."

    J.W. thought two things. First, he imagined himself knocking on Mrs. Stoker's door, the box in hand, waiting for her to open up so he could pour the dead leaves and magnolia buds over his neighbor's head. Second, he wondered if the old lady would be willing to enter 2319 Tutwiler and do some more picking up and boxing away of what she found there.

    Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ballpoint pen. On the reverse side of Mrs. Stoker's note, he printed in large letters GOD IS LOVE and stuck it between the screen door and the locked wooden one to her house. He figured he'd save the clothes pin to use to close up a package of nacho-flavored Doritos lying on his kitchen counter, a domestic trick he had learned from his ex-wife, one of two she possessed. The other was keeping opened cans of coffee in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator.

    The sun already as hot as it was reminded J.W. of the way the bolls would be firming all over the cotton fields of Panola County, Mississippi, this late in the spring. Later it would look like a field of snow to a man who knelt just right and looked out over it at the perfect angle. Reckon the government planted cotton or soybeans this year on the old place, he wondered. And whichever one it was, how much acreage did Uncle Sam allot himself this time? Better get on downtown, he told himself, don't get started on that.

    It wasn't until four years ago that J.W. had finally lost all the Ragsdale farm, when the government and the banks foreclosed on the last forty-nine acres, but it had been being chewed away at even before he got out of the army and came back home to Mississippi to plant and work it.

    He had been with the Memphis Police Department for twelve years of driving back and forth on I-55 between the Delta and the city before the recession and the banks and the foreclosure had finally focused his mind for him on one subject: urban homicide in the Bluff City.

    Now and again he still felt what a lady lawyer he had been involved with for a while called "rural twinges," but he tried to keep those pushed down.

    "Hey," she'd say to him. "Do you think you want to take your stand one more time? Are you sensing an attack of the agrarian coming on?"

    "When I do," he'd say, "I just think about the rain coming when you didn't want it and not coming when you do. And then I think about Memphis and how regular the cuttings and the shootings and the pay rolls are, and I just hunker on down."

    It had been easy to joke about it with the lady lawyer, but J.W. was glad the old man was gone by the time the last of the Ragsdale place was eaten up in the foreclosure. He would have tried to find somebody to shoot.

    Memphis was like Cuba, J.W. reflected as he drove down McLean toward the Midtown station. Hot, humid, dark-complected, and full of huge outdated cars from Detroit. He had to drive around two stalled vehicles, as the morning-drive DJs called them in their traffic reports, on his way to work. One was a '73 Olds still occupied by its female driver and nosed halfway into an intersection, and the other was an earlier model Cadillac Fleetwood. Its passengers had left it and moved to seats on the sidewalk while they waited for somebody with jumper cables to stop and get their luxury automobile moving again.

    Neither obstacle was having much effect on the traffic moving downtown, so J.W. didn't feel guilty about not stopping to call in help. Memphis drivers had grown used to such scenes as the city's fleet of GM, Ford, and Chrysler products aged. Japanese, German and Korean cars were flowing around the Detroit clots with hardly a horn-honk.

    J.W. waved at the sidewalk sitters as he pulled his '78 Buick around the Cadillac, and they all lifted a patient hand in return. "We built this city," sang the Jefferson Starship through his car radio, "on rock and roll."

    "Some lady been calling you, J.W.," said Tyrone Walker, looking up from his side of the desk the two shared in one of the cubicles in the single floor of the Midtown Station. "Twice in the last fifteen minutes."

    "What did she want?"

    "Wouldn't say. Asking for Eagle, she kept saying."

    "Oh, hell," said J.W. "Hope it was long distance. A way long distance."

    "Could be a local call, I don't know. She just said `Eagle' every breath she drew. Why she call you that?"

    "Well," said J.W. pointing toward a package of Salems in Tyrone's shirt pocket, "because I used to always holler like an eagle whenever I came into the cafeteria back in high school."

    "Like a eagle? How'd you know how to do that?" Tyrone took out one cigarette and held it toward J.W. and then put the package into the inside pocket of the coat hanging on the back of his chair.

    "Saw it in a picture show and practiced how to do it chopping cotton. Something to do."

    "She wouldn't leave a number. Gonna call you back, she said. Somebody from Batesville, I guess."

    "I imagine," said J.W. and then, going on the offensive, "you look like you better get you some ice cubes and hold them to your eyeballs. They's so red I expect you're fixing to bleed to death through them any minute now."

    "Twins kept us both walking all night," Tyrone said. "Me and Marvelle both. Squalling and carrying on."

    "That's the advantage of having them two at a time. Each of you got one to deal with."

    Tyrone looked back down at the stack of paper in front of him and lifted both hands to his forehead. His manicure was perfect. J.W. could see a half-moon at the base of each nail looking as it had been designed by an architect and glowing palely against the blueblack of Tyrone's skin.

    "That lady calls again," J.W. said, "tell her you don't know where I am and when I'm coming in."

    "Lord God," said Tyrone. "I'm so glad I'm a married man not getting no sleep at night."

    "You laugh. You don't know how hard it is on a middle-aged man flung back into the single life in his forties."

    "I imagine it's hard as a rock on the man."

    "Hard as a hoe-handle," J.W. said and sat down to his side of the desk to begin going through the file he had left there the night before.

    What it contained was a patrol officer's report of a crime from two days before, two slips of paper with telephone numbers written on them and an address that had been underlined, written over, and crossed through. All of this had been fresh only a few hours before, but J.W. knew it was rapidly becoming as cold as the body of the deceased involved, one Tollman Blevins of Columbus Grove, Ohio.

    Mr. Blevins had been on the program committee of a medical equipment convention meeting for four days at the Peabody Hotel. According to the official program, a copy of which J.W. had obtained from a cute little blonde in the hotel's public relations office, the theme of the meeting was business opportunities in the New South, and the keynote speaker had been Franklin Saxon, CEO of Delta Pride BarBQ. On the last night of scheduled activities, Blevins had left the lobby of the Peabody, where according to received local opinion the Mississippi Delta begins, and proceeded by foot and by free trolley down Mid America Mall. His destination was Mud Island where Wayne Newton was scheduled to appear, but did not, it developed, because of scheduling problems. Had Wayne showed, J.W. reflected, he probably would have saved Tollman Blevins' life as well as delighting several thousand fans of "Daddy, Don't You Walk So Fast" and "Danke Schoen."

    Disappointed by Wayne Newton, Mr. Blevins stopped for music and beer in several establishments along the Mall and on Front Street. Patrons of Blues Alley, the Sidebar, and Prince Mongo's later identified him from the medical examiner's photograph as having been a happy member of their number, drinking Mexican beers with lime quarters stuck in the mouths of the bottles, offering to dance with various young women and behaving generally in the time-honored way of Ohioans temporarily out of state.

    Around midnight he ran out of cash and then, a few minutes later, out of luck when he decided to visit a money machine on Front Street by the river. A native Memphian wouldn't have done that at that time of night, J.W. thought, unless he was knee-walking drunk or felt in deep need of being that way.

    What Tollman Blevins ran into sometime between 12:15 and 12:45 a.m. was a group of men at work, number uncertain but prints at the scene indicated at least three, laboring to free the ATM from its moorings in the cement of the sidewalk where it was attached by six bolts.

    A hot-wired forklift from a nearby construction site was used to push the ATM over far enough to get the tines of the lift under its front edge, and then the whole thing was torn loose and carried off.

    Most likely they stopped what they were doing to knife and club Blevins before they got the ATM broken loose, J.W. figured. He thought that because a couple who were parked a block away from Front Street told the investigating officer that they heard sounds of metal tearing and motor revving, then a break for a few minutes, and a return of the sounds later.

    Probably upset the demolition crew to have to stop and tend to the fool who wanted to get cash out of the ATM with a credit card, J.W. reflected, rather than trying the direct method they were using.

    They got double duty out of their screw driver and sledgehammer, though, judging from the medical examiner's report. The one with the hammer had been especially enthusiastic in his job. Somebody had missed a bet, though, because Blevin's wallet was still on his person.

    "Tyrone," J.W. said across the desk, pawing at the shirt pocket where he used to keep cigarettes. "You ever heard of them taking the whole ATM before?"

    "That's a new one, J.W., far as I know. Usually they just beat the shit out of it until they hit the jackpot. Looks like they moving up technologically nowadays."

    Tyrone Walker looked pointedly down at J.W.'s shirt pocket.

    "Just an itch," said J.W. "Scratching."

    "Uh huh. I hear you put a little pinch of Copenhagen between your gum and your lip, it'll take care of that craving."

    "That stuff'll turn your teeth all brown. Make your gums recede and get cancer. Women won't French-kiss you no more."

    "Say all that on the surgeon-general's warning, huh? Side of the package where all that warning stuff is?"

    "I don't suppose they found that empty ATM yet," J.W. said.

    "Oh, yeah, they did. Meter reader saw it off Jackson in a culvert. Somewhere in the 800 block, empty as my bank account."

    "I guess I'll go out there this afternoon and poke around some. See what things look like."

    "I don't think you'll see much. The Bank's done reclaimed the ATM and put up a new one where the first one got tore loose."

    "That's a crime scene, damn it," said J.W. "They got to wait until we release it."

    "Not when Memphis is getting ready for the barbecue festival," Tyrone said, leaning back in his chair and putting on a big fake grin. "Got to get things cleaned up and looking good for the tourists and the TV people. Put on a happy face. Sing a cheerful song of my people."

    "Long as you ain't the one singing it," J.W. said.

Meet the Author

Gerald Duff is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and has published 19 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry and non-fiction, all of which have brought him well-deserved comparison to Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Calvin Trillin, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner. Memphis Ribs is his unforgettable tale of deception, crime, and barbecue. His stories have been cited in the Best American Short Fiction, the Pushcart Prizes, and the Editors' Choice: The Best American Fiction.

Duff grew up in two parts of Texas: the petro-chemical area of the Gulf Coast, and the pine barrens of Deep East Texas, which made for two-mindedness and a bifurcated view of the world, as he demonstrates in his fiction. His characters are deeply rooted both in the past and in the present, and they struggle fiercely and comically in a quest to achieve escape velocity from places which are not their homes.

He has has worked as a hand in the oil fields and the cotton fields, as a janitor, a TV camera man, a professor of English, a college dean, and as a bit actor in television drama. He has made up stories all his life and written wherever he's been. He's still doing that.

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Memphis Ribs 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
swtdrmsnluv4u More than 1 year ago
First, I would like to thank the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for giving me a copy of this book free, for an honest review. I really enjoyed this book. For a steady, simple read this book hit the spot. A little bit of mystery, a little bit of comic relief, and a whole lot of ribs!
jayfwms More than 1 year ago
This book is not only a great thriller, it is also a fun read. The characterizations and the interplay between the characters provide a story that is a pleasure to read. All the players are real people with strengths and weaknesses that provide strong emotio9ns in the reader Try it, you will be glad you did.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Duff does an interesting job mixing comedy and violent crime. Memphis cop JW Ragsdale is a well developed character, who goes about solving the murder of a tourist during the International BBQ Cooking Contest. Duff's Southern dialects and colloquialisms are a little in the stereotypical vein, which is surprising from a former resident of Memphis. The story lines are tied clearly at the end, but left this reader thinking a good revsion could have resulted in a better book.