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