Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Big Names Eulogize Moody

The Funeral of Tanner Moody
Special to the New York Morning Telegraph

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – Tanner Moody is dead. Long live Tanner Moody.

Some of the brightest stars in the western firmament gathered here to eulogize Moody, a one-time “pistoleer” and noted Wild West reprobate. Although not nearly as well known as his famous mourners – Elmer Kelton, John Jakes, Peter Brandvold, James Reasoner, Robert Randisi, and others (inveterate liars all) – Moody’s exploits reverberate even today, many years after his death.

Framed and put into perspective by contemporary Bat Masteron (the text of which was edited by Randisi), Moody’s wake occasioned the telling of many stories of his life, some of which conflicted. Was he a hated gunman and a murderer of women? Did his father chase him from his home just ahead of the law or did his father help him escape? Each biographer offers a different point of view of this complex, uncompromising man of the late 19th Century.

These stories about Moody were plentiful during the multi-day wake at Fort Worth, Texas’ White Elephant Tavern. Marthayn Pelegrimas relates the story of “Poor Ole Moody,” which reveals a rare glimpse of the honoree’s tragic youth. Pelegrimas insightfully offers evidence as to why Moody, on occasion, turned to what is affectionately remembered as the “owlhoot trail.” Blamed for the murder of his abusive stepmother, Moody was forced to leave his family and home, one step ahead of the law.

Fellow mourner, and Moody contemporary, Elmer Kelton retells the tale of a youthful Moody on the Texas-Mexico border during the early cattle days before the War of Northern Aggression. Headstrong and audacious, Moody’s personal feud with Mexican land baron Don Carlos helped spread Moody’s growing celebrity and was widely reported in the newspapers of the day. The wild, irresponsible print accounts, however, are quickly dispelled in Kelton’s short, poignant history.

Comfortable in his well-worn seat – a chair that is part of the charm original owner Luke Short invested in the White Elephant in the late 1800s – Peter Brandvold recounts the circumstances surrounding Moody’s first, foolish love affair. With a bloody ending that got remarkably little attention in the newspapers at the time, a still young Moody was crushed as his lover and her father battled to a Faustian death.

James Reasoner reveals a somewhat older Tanner Moody who is suffering the consequences of his youth. A sheriff in a town called Flat Rock during the war, he is respected and reviled in turn. With a rich reputation, Moody is suspected of stealing gold from area miners even as he searches for the culprits.

Hundreds filed in and out of the White Elephant over the course of several days. Whether mourners or celebrants, it is sometimes difficult to tell. Other names that signed the funereal guest book included L.J. Washburn, Jory Sherman, and Kerry Newcomb. Many of their remembrances are collected in The Funeral of Tanner Moody (Leisure Books, July 2004).

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) - 6

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Troubled Sharpshooters

Trouble Man by Ed Gorman (Leisure Books 1998)
The Sharpshooter: Brimstone by Tobias Cole (Harper 2003)

I began these two titles with two very different expectations. Trouble Man is by an old hand, Ed Gorman, and has a very simple set-up that promises excitement. For some reason this book called to me from the Borders bookshelf for months before I picked it up and for months after I brought it home. Maybe it was the title in heavy, raised typeface or the cool blue cover of a lone rider. Certainly the back cover blurb enticed me. I started reading eagerly, finally, and by the end of its 312 pages I was fairly disappointed.

Ray Coyle is an ex-gunfighter come to town to claim the body of the son he barely knew. He realizes immediately that his son’s death is suspicious and goes about investigating. Of course, he stirs up a hornet’s nest. This sounds good, doesn’t it? But the book is all over the map and, like the one that follows, is full of touchy-feely crap when decisive action is needed. There’s a lot of fluff in this – conversations that ramble on endlessly, scenes that repeat, that kind of thing. There is some dramatic potential here, but it is not well handled.

By contrast, Brimstone was bought on a whim and with low expectations. It was clear from the beginning that this was supposed to be the first in a series of stories about the eponymous sharpshooter. The font size was large so it promised to be a quick read. Looking carefully at the copyright page we find that the actual author is Cameron Judd. So, it seemed worth a shot, even if it was just a dashed off effort.

Dashed off is exactly what this book was. There is little real character development, very limited action. The story is described in very bland terms. It is ostensibly a mystery so its first person narration is not a bad voice to use. But the character is a whiner, as are most of the characters. The mystery is feeble and badly laid out. The entire plot revolves around the Andersonville Civil War prison, and the horrors within its walls. Apparently 13,000 of the 45,000 Union Soldiers to pass through its gates died of disease and other causes. By the time the story starts the war is years in the past but it is still affecting the characters. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. War affects people for many years. But the coincidences in the story that rely on Andersonville are just too much to take. And, the worst offense, at least to my mind, is the unmitigated fluff and air throughout. Scenes are elongated to ridiculous lengths. Useless scenes are added. While the story starts out – literally – with a bang (albeit one described rather lacklusterly), it never again achieves that level of movement or action. This is one to avoid.

Both of these books suffer from what is becoming, for me, a persistent pet peeve: they’re bloated. These books should be lean and hard but they’re puffed up and ultimately impotent.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 4

Not So Steady in the Saddle

The Mexican Saddle by Bennett Foster
(1941, Western Story Magazine, reprinted 2003, Leisure Books)

I was looking forward to this book for a few months since I first heard about it coming out. There are so many of the old pulpsters that are not reprinted while folks like Max Brand have their laundry lists published. I like Max Brand, but I ’m looking for variety.

And the back cover blurb promises an interesting story. Unfortunately, Foster does not follow through well. Perhaps it’s just his writing style I don’t like, but I felt that there was so much filler that the story got a little lost.

The premise is that a man dies trying to protect a family secret just after he delivers the saddle of the title to a friend. Others immediately take an interest in the saddle and trouble ensues. But the saddle is really an old Hitchcock "macguffin" ploy – and one done badly. While Foster mentions the saddle frequently it seems that he does it simply to justify the title. Yes, people are after it but pretty half-heartedly.

There’s a map to a gold mine and some whites are running guns to a faction of Mexicans in revolt, there’s a deputy who’s pretty crooked, and a girl who’s shoe-horned in just to take a rough stab at a love interest. It all becomes fairly muddled.

Foster’s writing style doesn’t help matters either. The writing is pretty loose and colloquial. He has some wild plotting, too, and he too often backtracks on the story to tell another angle. This last is not a bad technique – I use it occasionally myself – but it seems very jarring in this story.
Overall, I was disappointed – and my disappointment was doubled because I had had high hopes for the book.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 3

Hamilton's Fever Tepid

Texas Fever by Donald Hamilton (1960, Fawcett Gold Medal Books)

Donald Hamilton – author of the Matt Helm spy series and the super-taut thriller Line of Fire – usually writes better than this. Maybe it isn’t his writing. Maybe it’s just the plot. But something seems a bit off.

Young Chuck McAuliffe is peeved that his father and brother are home from the Civil War and ready to take back the ranch that he kept running while they were away. He is shunted aside and treated like a kid, not like a man who’s tended the family business alone. On a drive north from Texas they run into a Kansas militia that won’t allow Texican beef to cross the territory line. A fight and a rustling attempt ensue and both brother and father are killed. Chuck loses the herd to the law, and has to stand by as plans are made to sell off the beef for a fraction of its worth.

Chuck has a problem. He’s hot and ready to fight, but this being a new breed of western, his anger is tempered by a woman and his own reluctance to have people think ill of him. Instead of using the ready gun talent of his drovers, he eventually seeks the aid of the law in regaining some of what’s due him for the forced sale of his beef.

Along the way, we meet a mercenary woman who really doesn’t have a heart of gold, a vicious and ruthless psychopath, and a whole passel of greedy folk. The girl is pure enough, and her father, the lawdog, is honest if somewhat impotent.

All in all, this was not a satisfying read. It may have been "accurate" enough, but not only do the bad guys have to be punished, the heroes have to win out – and they have to be heroic. Texas Fever lets you down on both counts.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) - 3

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Black Tolts a Bright Star

The Black Tolts by William McLeod Raine
(Popular Library, 1986)

Having read Zane Grey, I was prepared for William MacLeod Raine’s rather stilted, old-fashioned style in The Black Tolts. While flowery in his language, Raine doesn’t waste a lot of time extolling the virtues of landscape, as does Grey. His purplish prose is reserved for expressing human emotion – albeit torridly. This practice seemed to be going out of style by the 1930s in favor of the terser language of the gangster.

Despite this, Raine is truer than Grey is his use of themes and characters. Grey is kind of like Shakespeare in that his people are idealized characters: good, bad, tormented, or whatever, they seem to be the very epitome of that single characteristic. Raine’s characters – at least in this novel – are rougher, less perfect in their foulness or virtue, regardless of the flowery language.

The Black Tolts was originally published in the September 1933 issue of Complete Western Book Magazine. For some of its later book printings it carried the title of Pistol Pardners. This is one of those rare times when a pulp proclaimed accurately that the story enclosed was "novel length." My copy is a 1986 Popular Library reprint with a rather bland cover.

The story inside, though, is quite enjoyable. Raine deals with three themes, one of them effectively, one fairly well done, and the other not so well. He wonders (through his heartbroken Ellen and bedeviled Dave) about the nature of free will and whether or not human beings can control their foul deeds. This comes rather late in the story, but at least there were thin suggestions of it from almost the beginning. There is also the discussion of celebrity and how people elevated robbers and even murderers to lofty status. While the Tolts are chased and every effort is made to perforate them, in the end the clan survivors escape without punishment. In fact, Dave goes with a blessing and a hope that the future will change him. The primary theme deals with loyalty, and just how long a friend should stay loyal even after one of the friends turns to crime.

Dave Tolt is the youngest of six brothers and feels left out of the loop. The family is called black because they stem from a less than savory branch of the good name of Tolt. The brothers run a ranch but have a side hobby of robbing stages and banks. Young Dave is kept away from the family recreation until he overhears plans to rob a train. He beats the brothers to the punch and is reluctantly taken into their confidence. After committing some more crimes, they decide to rob two banks in a town called Burke. It’s a foolish venture and three of them are killed. The other three, including Dave, are shot up and go into hiding.

In the middle of all of this is a love triangle between Dave, Ellen, and Dave’s best friend Allen, who is secretly in love with Ellen. Both Allen and Ellen realize that something is wrong with Dave from early on and begin to rely on each other and grow closer. Eventually Ellen ’s eyes open to the fact that it’s the stalwart Allen she loves and not the reckless and criminal Dave. Along the way, though, both she and Allen torture themselves over Dave’s fall from grace and their desire to help him avoid the hangman’s noose.

What makes this novel enjoyable is that the characters are not wholly one thing or another. They are conflicted, they make mistakes, they are foolish, and ultimately some of them regret the paths they’ve chosen. No one is truly happy at the end of the book. Ellen and Allen have found each other and are looking forward to a good life and the respect of the community. But there are echoes of sadness, too, reminders of the pain left behind in the wake of good men gone bad. Despite the language, this is a surprisingly modern story that is very true to human nature.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 8

Monday, October 11, 2004

Double Your Pleasure

Sixgun Duo by Ernest Haycox
Pinnacle Books, 1990

When I first experimented with reading westerns some years ago I started with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Max Brand. These were all known names and promised to give the best opportunity for me to understand the genre. Eventually, I wanted to branch out. Ernest Haycox was the first author I tried beyond the ubiquitous triumvirate. His worked seemed more realistic, honest, and delved into gray areas that other authors did not use.

The two stories in Sixgun Duo are from his earlier days, and may have been run as short serials. In "The Gun Singer," a 1931 novelette of about 30,000 words, drifter Bill Keogh stumbles into a bad situation. A 20 year feud over a woman long dead and a ranch empty of cattle. While the motivation for enmity and the impetus for character and plot movement are similar to Coburn’s "Coffin Ranch," the set-up is cleaner and the characters seem more real, grittier.

The main combatants die early leaving Keogh and the daughter of one of the feuders, Helen, to carry on. Like most of Haycox’s women, Helen is no shrinking violet: "I was born into this trouble," she tells Keogh, holding a .44 on him. "Raised on it. What do you expect me to do now – faint, scream, be ladylike?" The prose and the dialog is as clean as the plot.

The rival, Shadders, a skunk if ever there was one, shoots up the town and Helen and Keogh retreat to her ranch. The foreman doesn’t like the newcomer and the few men he has left set out to drive Keogh away. The fail and scurry off, and ever watchful Shadders decides to make his move to take over the whole territory.

Keogh admits to Helen that he’s a "gun singer," a man meant to face trouble with a gun in his hand. He makes no apology for that – it’s something he’s long since accepted. For her part, Helen accepts it, too. A bold woman, she understands that some troubles have to be solved with lead. This is a far cry from Haycox’s contemporaries, especially, that often preached abstinence from drinking whiskey and a female disdain for gunplay. Haycox’s Helen is made of sterner stuff and is far more practical. In fact, most of Haycox’s women share not only that practicality but a strength borne of the frontier that other authors can’t always capture.

The story ends satisfactorily, if predictably. That really doesn’t matter, though. Our taciturn hero has proven – even in a short novelette – that he had the mettle and the moral fiber to face high odds and win out against the dirty dogs.

"Night Raid" is slightly short and written two years earlier, appearing in the April 1929 issue of Frontier Stories. (Pinnacle, like other publishers at the time, didn’t realize readers were interested in a story’s pedigree so, like "Gun Singer" they offer no publication history. The pulp community, though, responded to an online inquiry.) Reading the story I got the idea that the leads, Indigo Bowers and Joe Breedlove, were series characters or, at the very least, Haycox planned them to be.

Because it’s an earlier piece, it suffers (as did many of his earlier works) just a little from the same older style of writing that often marred Zane Grey’s work. (This is not a slight against Grey, but his language often was stilted and not very modern.) Yet the story moves and the dialog is not saddled with the hard-to-follow colloquialisms used by Grey, Clarence Mulford, and occasionally by Walt Coburn.

The plot relies on a simple conceit that, if you accept it, allows the rest of the story to develop in a fairly natural way. If it seems preposterous, or just downright stupid, then the rest of the yarn suffers somewhat. I say somewhat because Haycox writes great characters and action with plenty of excitement and tension no matter the plot.

The conceit is this (and, oddly enough, I recently saw it used on a Gunsmoke episode): the heroes Bowers and Breedlove are not men to go and inform on others. This comes into play early when their camp is invaded by rustlers expecting to meet up with two expert movers of stolen beef, unknown by sight. The boys con their way (for their own safety) into making the rustlers believe they are the experts sent for. Plans are made to meet up again the next day.
At this point most men would go to the sheriff and let him know of the criminal activities being planned. But not our men. They won’t inform. So they concoct a plan to receive the stolen cattle then sneak the beeves back onto their home range – then ride for the hills. Well, of course, things don’t go smoothly. The rustlers begin to suspect them, gunplay begins, and our heroes are captured. After their somewhat unlikely escape, the pals split: one to go for help (about time), the other to hold back the tide of rustlers angry at having their play busted by these interlopers.

Our heroes win out but it looks like a bust for the pals who just might split up over a gal. But, of course, saddle pards ride together forever and finally move on, one assumes, to new adventures beyond the sunset.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 8

Monday, September 06, 2004

Solid Story from Old Pro

Gateway House by Wayne D. Overholser
Leisure Books,

There is a shock in Gateway House that has nothing to do with the plot. Written in 1953 for Better Publications, and appearing in Giant Western’s February issue, this is a redemption story. Ed Morgan’s brother is dead but his last request was that Ed return to Gateway House, find a hidden cache of $50,000, and give it to his fiance, Honey Travers. But Ed is warned: one look at Honey and he’ll never want another woman. This proves true and after some fisticuffs, gunplay, and chases, the bad guys die and Ed and Honey ride off into the sunset.

It’s a fast-moving story filled with uncharacteristic emotional angst, for a western. Ed rarely knows the right course to take, always doubting Honey and just about everyone else. The writing is excellent, as you would expect from Overholser.

What you don’t expect are two very strong words, words you would not expect from Overholser or from a pulp story. He uses the B word several times referring to women in the story, and once he uses the F word. This is quite shocking and sent me scrambling to figure out how these words got into the final manuscript. A notation at the front of the book, however, held the answer to the mystery. It says "An earlier version, ‘shorter’ [sic] of this novel ….", and the copyright was renewed in 1980. Apparently, Mr. Overholser revised his novel to more reflect modern sensibilities, or perhaps he returned to his original manuscript. Regardless, the addition of these words is jarring and totally unnecessary. Still, they don’t really detract from the enjoyment of this excellent western novel.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) - 8

Wilderness Offers History, Excitement

Wilderness: King of the Mountain by David Thompson
Leisure Books, 1990

This is a quiet little series that comes out pretty much when it feels like it. Wilderness has been around since 1990 but as of next month there will be only 40 entries into the series. Thompson (aka David Robbins) is one of the myriad of writers who steps into Mack Bolan’s shoes every once in a while. According to some reviews, this is the best-researched mountain man series in existence.

I’ve never read William Johnstone’s series (a more well-known "Mountain Man" series) so I don’t know if Thompson’s work compares favorably. What I do know is that this first book in the series (just reprinted by Leisure along with other entries), is an okay read.

Thompson starts out in territory mined by Max Brand nearly a century ago. His hero, young Nate King, is a neophyte and a cosmopolitan, living in New York City in 1828. He yearns for adventure but his fiance wants wealth and position. A mysterious letter from an estranged uncle gives Nate the chance to fulfill both needs. He heads out west to meet his uncle in St. Louis where the two trek into the Rockies ostensibly for the uncle to show Nate a treasure beyond measure. Along the way they share many adventures and Nate grows.

While the writing is pretty good, it is also very obvious. The adventures are cliched: proud or murderous Indians, grizzly bears, that sort of thing. This would be forgivable if there weren’t a couple of large problems. The first is that Nate shows absolutely no aptitude for the life he ultimately chooses. He stumbles into success. There’s nothing that he inherently knows or can do that helps him along the way. The second is that he makes a life choice in an instant.

Throughout the entire novel he has only one desire and that’s for gold. But at the end he decides to stay in a hostile environment and leave behind the only world he knows. This should have been built up better. The last problem is that he is so damned gullible. He falls for the same ruse several times without ever learning.

Frankly, after reading this first volume I’m surprised Nate King (an historic figure) actually survived long enough to have 40 books written about him.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) - 7