Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dark Tones Improve Noir "Alegre"

Rancho Alegre
by John D. Nesbitt
Leisure Books, July 2005

Nesbitt’s Rancho Alegre is another first person western. It’s a mystery, too, like the previously reviewed Lawless (by Ed Gorman). But where Gorman’s Lawless is a Mickey Spillane/Carroll John Daly sharp wrap to the jaw, Nesbitt takes the softer, Chandleresque approach.

Reading Rancho Alegre is like falling slowly into a dark pit. Make no mistake, this is a noir mystery set, apparently, in the early 20th Century. There are no airplanes. Men still carry guns on their hips. Horse travel is still the way of the West. But there is the mention of an automobile, brief as it is.

Nesbitt’s hero, Jimmy Clevis, is not completely jaded. He’s no Travis McGee. Nor is he a hard shell closet romantic like Philip Marlowe. He’s different from the normal mold, far more rural than urban. It’s that twist, among others, that elevates this story.

Clevis is down and out. He’s not working right now, and not too worried about it. There’s a Mexican girl in town he’s sort of sweet on, but he doesn’t break a sweat over her. He gets a message from a local swell named Milton Earlywine that there’s a job for the asking. Clevis talks to the man, but doesn’t like the setup. Earlywine has had a saddle stolen and he’d like it back. No, he can’t go to the sheriff. He just needs a man to get it back. The whole thing sounds shifty and Jimmy doesn’t want to take the job.

Coincidentally there’s another man looking for help. His name is Tull and he’s looking for the illegitimate son he fathered years ago. He’s got a line on the boy but needs help in pinpointing the now grown man and bringing him word of his heritage. Jimmy likes Tull a lot better than Earlywine so he takes the job. But before he can leave town he finds out that Earlywine has been murdered.

The trail leads south, where Jimmy captures the attention of some local toughs. He also runs into his Mexican sweetheart who coincidentally is travelling, and the two make plans to meet on their way back home. Along the way Jimmy uncovers some tawdry facts and goes toe-to-toe with those hoping to keep the secrets hidden. Thematically, this is a classic noir story.

Specifically, Nesbitt borrows a great deal from Raymond Chandler. Early on there is a scene that recalls an early moment from The Big Sleep. Nesbitt’s hero meets with an old man (Earlywine) whose enormous weight makes him invalid. The scene takes place in the man’s home. It is hot and humid and Jimmy sweats as he listens to the old man ask him to do some less than savory work. These pages live in the shadows of Marlowe meeting the General.
But it is more than this one scene that calls Chandler to mind. Although not a private detective, Jimmy operates in that capacity. The first person narrative is leisurely, its edges rounded and full of character. Things take place almost in slow motion. Early on you can see the train wreck coming but there’s really nothing you can do to stop it. And Nesbitt’s hero is so wrapped up in it that he can’t see what’s right in front of his face. This is very much in the style of the classic noir stories, of men trapped in an ever-spiraling disaster, none of it of their own making. The story and the writing draw the reader in and drive right over that cliff along with the hero. Nesbitt rarely spends time on things that are not worthwhile. Although not as sharply written as Chandler’s Marlowe, the character of Jimmy comes out as distinct and interesting.

Nesbitt builds a pretty good mystery. There are several twists and turns, and one or two events that are a surprise (i.e., his “General” getting killed early on, something that is used with other events to cast a poor light on Jimmy). But he has trouble ending the story. His McGuffin – a saddle with a secret message – is never fully explained, even though it ties prominently into the death of a couple of men. Nesbitt offers no final twist. He so readily uses the Chandler model right up to the end that the finale feels simple and empty.

Chandler would have used a femme fatale-style ending, as he did in The Big Sleep. Nesbitt has the opportunity here but does not use it, deciding instead to intimate further growth in a romantic relationship. While this has its merits, we’re not even treated to a final kiss between the two characters, something that he had been built up as the story progressed. It would have been a nice touch and might have given the story an actual ending.

Nesbitt also does not have a final scene with Jimmy’s employer. Jimmy is supposed to report to Tull about his illegitimate son but decides to blow it off with a letter, which seems somewhat cowardly and rushed. A final scene – one showing the effect of the death of his sons (the recognized heir as well has the illegitimate one) on his employer – would have been far more satisfying than how Nesbitt ended the story.

Still, Nesbitt’s story is excellent and worth reading. For the most part the mystery holds. And when things become obvious you still have the smooth writing and captivating characters to carry you through to the end.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Ruthlessly Good "Lawless"

by Ed Gorman
Berkley, May 2000

I have a personal bias regarding first person stories. I generally don’t care for them outside the mystery genre. I’ve read a number of western stories in the first person and haven’t cared for any of them, which only served to reinforce my bias. But Gorman’s Lawless is a different animal – though, after reading the next review, not unique.

Gorman’s prose is hard hitting, spare, direct, unrelenting and unforgiving. He squares up and raps you in the mouth with his story. He tells Lawless in short, declarative sentences that give you information without the swell-headed, don’t-I-know-so-much-more-than- you hyperbole that too many writers use. His dialogue is clipped and full of information. It keeps the plot moving. He also breaks up the story into sections that makes the reading go faster.

His characters, though, provide the most drive. You want to know what will happen to these people. Much of the time the plot turns in the direction you expect, however, removing some of the tension from the story. Still, there are a couple of twists that are interesting, and the end comes suddenly, although not without warning. You just don’t know if the good guys will pull it off in the end, mainly because Gorman can be remorseless in his slaughter. The book could easily have ended with a less positive finish.

Lawless is clearly cut in the noir mold. But rather than have a tough guy hero, Gorman has created a somewhat childish and selfish dreamer who is driven to help not for the Chandleresque urban knight reasons but for his own lascivious and self-aggrandizing reasons.

Sam Conagher falls madly in love with wealthy heiress Nora Rutledge, sister to the pompous and cruel Cal Rutledge. Their father is wound pretty tight and very concerned about appearances.
Conagher is just out of prison. As a youth he had fancy ideas to become an outlaw, to rob trains. This is in the late 1800s so his chance of success wasn’t all that high. Now that he’s out he wants to go straight. He finds an old cell mate, Earl, who’s become the law in a small town and drops in. Earl has found God and preaches to all who will listen. Also in this town is Callie, a former whore whom Conagher loved, but never trusted. She’s with a dimwitted fellow named Ham, who’s girlishly high voice leads to fisticuffs on a regular basis. Ham is big enough to handle himself.

Conagher’s hopes for a romance with Nora don’t go well. The father looks down on him, the brother Cal is derisive and causes trouble for him. Amid all of this, Conagher gets wind of a plot to kidnap Nora for ransom. Now Sam feels he has a chance to redeem himself and win the girl. He can put down the kidnappers and rescue the damsel. Greedily, he keeps the knowledge to himself and tries to learn the details of the plot. Instead of circumstances driving Sam down a dark alley, though, as would happen in most noir stories, it’s Conagher’s own childish dreams, his greed, and his growing distrust of his old friend Earl that leads him into trouble. He knows Callie is in on the plot, and wonders if Earl’s Bible-thumping is just a cover for darker deeds.

The plot turns, though, when Callie is killed, and then Nora’s brother is kidnapped. Things aren’t following the neat plan Conagher imagined. They’re more gruesome and convoluted. Sam is confused and way over his head. Eventually, he’s framed for Cal Rutlege’s death, and Ham’s death, too. To everyone, it’s a falling out among theives. A lynch mob is about to settle the matter when Sam escapes, with Earl’s help.

Still, Conagher doesn’t understand that he’s not smart enough to figure out the very dark plot. He returns to Nora in hopes of setting things right, but he can’t. Nora has masterminded all of the death and destruction in order to get control of her father’s estate. Everyone has been her pawn. Captured in her house, Sam is about to meet his fate at the end of a rope when he convinces Rutledge about the truth of his daughter. A decisive man, Rutledge ends the misery – for Nora and for himself.

There are flaws in the book. Most of the plot twists seem telegraphed. There’s an obviousness about all of it. Conagher is not a particularly likeable hero. He’s kind of stupid and selfish and childish. His ideas about romance are very silly.

Gorman’s writing, however, powers the book over and through any obstacles. It reads quickly. It’s full of action. The characters are fairly well-rounded (even if some of their traits seem fabricated for the sake of lending an odd quality to the story) and drawn with a skilled hand. The dialog is sharp, almost painful in its spareness. And Gorman – skilled professional that he is – avoids nearly all the pitfalls of writing in the first person. All in all, Lawless is a good read and well worth the time.

Easy to Extricate from Simple "Trapp"

Trapp’s Mountain
by Robert J. Randisi
Leisure Books, August 2005

A friend critiqued my first, deservedly unsold western many years ago. It was called The Wide River. His first, and major comment was, “Where’s the river?” I told him it was metaphorical, that the river was a gulf to be crossed on the way to the main character’s growth and greater understanding. That didn’t matter much to the critic. He still wanted to know where was the damned river.
Perhaps Randisi was using the mountain in the title of this novel as a metaphor, too, but by the end of it I still wanted to know where was the mountain. Of course, the unnamed mountain within the Rockies is ubiquitous. The main character, Trapp, speaks of it at every opportunity. Eventually, we do get to the mountain for a few uninteresting pages in the epilogue. But the payoff is unsatisfactory, and the reader is left with the obvious question.

No doubt, Randisi meant the mountain to represent Trapp’s struggles through a life made unfair by cruel and powerful men. But you sort of have to guess at all of that and fill in a lot of holes yourself. Randisi doesn’t come out and tell you this, nor does he have Trapp develop an inner dialog that would reveal such (necessary and yet sadly absent) depth. Instead, Trapp expends a great deal of passive energy, and time, in a Sisiphysian effort to get back to his mountain, which to him symbolizes an ideal.

Trapp’s Mountain is a thin book – thin on ideas, not pages. Randisi fills many pages (most of them, in fact) with pedantic dialogue that does little to serve the advancement of the plot. Much of it rehashes earlier conversations. It is a story told mostly in dialogue, with textbook bad lines like, “Well, here comes our friend now.” This is not how a seasoned writer like Randisi is supposed to write.

It is a quick read, though. His sentences are short and clear, and the reader’s eyes virtually fly across the page. Mainly because there’s nothing on which to light.

Randisi tells his story out of order, which is fine. Filling in backstory as you go is the best way to keep a story moving at a quick pace. But too often he uses lengthy flashbacks – often 10 or 20 pages – to tell in dialogue where a paragraph or two of prose would have sufficed. It would make sense to spend this amount of time if Randisi had used it well. He doesn’t. Although the perspective or the time period shifts, Randisi does never varies his tone or style or atmosphere. Everything is told simply, with no effort to build much in the way of suspense or to give the action an air of drama. It reads like a shorthand version of a story, with everything that makes reading fun taken out of it.

The story is simple enough. John Henry Trapp has tracked down and killed the two men responsible for killing his Indian common law wife. One of the murderers has a powerful father. Trapp is himself convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. When he gets out, all he wants to do is get back to his mountain. In short order he quite conveniently falls into a woman’s bed, a pile of money, and the company of a pleasant gun-for-hire. They have a number of adventures that have nothing to do with the mountain, are chased by a bounty hunter hired by the powerful and still grieving father, and finally run afowl of some Comanches. They get away from this penultimate trouble rather neatly (and conveniently) only to have a final showdown with the bounty hunter.

We never really get inside the characters. They are all of them one-dimensional. All of them speak grammatically corrected English, with hardly an “ain’t” or a “wal” or a “shore” to be found. Even the writer’s own character doesn’t come to the surface. The book is entirely devoid of personality. Of course, Randisi can’t help take a PC shot at the military when, at the end of the novel he describes an off-camera military raid: “[The soldiers] had found the camp and killed themselves some Indians – among them, Trapp was quite sure, some women and children …” But even this is a watery indictment and feels obligatorily tossed in for no reason other than to say how bad the bluecoats were toward the Indians.

Some might read this book and recommend it as light reading. It’s far worse than that, though. Trapp’s Mountain is completely empty and not worth your time. Randisi is better than this; he has been better than this, and hopefully will be again.

"Thirteen" Unlucky for Smith

The Thirteenth Bullet
by Cotton Smith
Pocket Star Books, February 2004

There is a good story buried deep within Cotton Smith’s The Thirteenth Bullet. The problem is he covers it up with so much empty text and inane dialogue that the reader cannot find it.

The title of the story refers to one of a thousand superstitions adhered to by the main character, Texas Ranger “Thunder” Kileen. Kileen and his nephew, fellow ranger Time Carlow, are on the hunt for notorious badman Silver Mallow and his gang. They’ve captured eight of Mallow’s men and are holding them in the jail in Bennett, Texas. The gang comes into town and routs the rangers, killing two of them. Kileen and Carlow escape, barely with their lives. They return some months later, after Carlow heals, and dish out some justice. Mallow and the remnants of his gang head for the hills. But that’s only a ruse. The rangers relax a little, planning to follow the outlaws come the following morning. Mallow and his gang, however, sneak back into town for a final, deadly showdown.

That’s the whole book right there. One hundred and fourteen words. The rest of the novel, approximately 90,000 words, is spent on barrels full of nonsense.

Kileen is a great believer in superstition. Over the course of more than 300 pages the character relates upwards of a hundred distinct supernatural beliefs. It becomes tedious and constantly interrupts the action. And it adds nothing to the plot. The thirteenth bullet is a bizarre concern for Kileen, who believes that that shell will jam when levered into a rifle’s action. When loading a rifle he lines up the bullets to be fed into the weapon’s ammunition tube and passes over the thirteenth cartridge. This specific ritual occurs several times in the book yet it never plays an important part in the story’s outcome.

Smith employs bigotry as a driving force in the book. The town of Bennett – despite the fact that Carlow and some of his fellow Rangers grew up there and are trying to protect the citizens – despises the Irish. Of course, this was true to some extent in the old west. In fact, every ethnic group that has come to America has suffered bigotry at one time or another. In Smith’s story the racism is palpable. In fact, the town leads the Rangers into several traps that results in the death of two lawmen. Yet by story’s end, with little in the way of motivation, the town switches sides and rides with the remaining Rangers to rout the outlaws.

This all seems gratuitous. Used more as a plot point than as social commentary, the bigotry feels forced and unnecessary. Also, the extreme use of written brogue (“Sure’n ya know wot oy mean!”) and the nonsense of superstitions stereotypes Kileen in a way that does not support the author’s indictment of bigotry in the old west.

And there’s more. Smith takes every opportunity to digress, either to discuss more superstitions or to reveal something from the past. While digressions help round out a story in the way of character and plot, Smith’s use of it only serves to drag the story down and kill the action. There is absolutely no economy in his writing here.

Dialog is mundane and often expository. Smith employs none of the mechanics for building suspense or intrigue. There is virtually no tension in the book. Later on he decides that what’s missing is a romance. So he invents one out of whole cloth and instantly has our romantic lead (Carlow) fall head over heals in love. Smith can spend chapters on discussing superstitions and more pages on characters deciding where they will eat, but something as important as two characters falling in love takes place over the course of a couple of paragraphs.

Cotton Smith is a better writer than this. He knows the west, modern and historical, and can write about it with ease. He’s a scholarly gentleman with a lot of talent. He could have gone with a story the delved into the depths of bigotry in the old west, or simply used his pulp-inspired main plot and written a straight out action story (this latter would receive my vote, if we’re casting ballots). However, he does neither and misses the mark by far with this, the first in a (presumably to be short) series about Texas Rangers. If The Thirteenth Bullet is still on the bookshelves don’t bother to pick it up.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Fishin' Hole Blues

Cutthroat Gulch
Richard S. Wheeler
Signet, April 2003

Wheeler takes a break from his successful and long running Barnaby Skye series to give us one of his “traditional” westerns. I’ve never read Wheeler but found his prose in Cutthroat Gulch easy to read but prosaic. His suspense is never really suspenseful, though, and the mystery he sets up never pays off.

We meet Blue Smith, an old-time sheriff who’d long ago cleaned up the county and is now at the end of his career. He’s about 50. His eyesight is going and so is his hearing. His young deputy is covetous of the top spot. He’s an ornery sort, and his roughness goes deeper than just the edges. His wife loves him, though, and the town has respect for him.

Smith’s vice is fishing. He goes to a certain pond with some regularity and it’s been made clear to just about everyone in the town of Blankenship that this is Blue’s fishing hole. It’s here that Blue finds the body of a dead man.

Taking his time, Blue investigates and cannot find out who the dead man was. He’s a stranger, unknown to anyone. Blue figures that the body was left at the fishing hole as a message to Blue himself, left for the sheriff to find. Just what that message might be is unclear. He finds a trail leading away from the murder scene and follows it. In almost no time his horse and packhorse are killed by a sniper. The shooter, Blue reasons, is toying with him.

Shortly we’re introduced to Blue’s daughter Tammy, her two children, and her husband, Steve. They live close to where the tracks lead. It occurs to Blue that the killer knows him and is leading him somewhere. He worries for his daughter. That worry is borne out when Steve is murdered.

Leaving his daughter in the care of a trusted friend, Blue continues his search. It’s about then that he’s told that Jack Castle has been released from prison. Castle, once a favorite in the Smith household, had turned wild and went to prison. He had been the son Blue had always hoped his own son would be. But things went bad.

Slowly, he begins killing Blue’s family. Steve is first, then Blue’s wife, then Tammy. The children are left unharmed. Blue realizes that Jack is saving him for last and sets a trap of sorts by his fishing hole. There, he confronts Jack with the children in tow. With stern understanding Blue tells Jack that someone has to take care of the kids once he is gone. Either that, or Jack will have to kill the kids, too. Unable to murder children Jack rushes off and commits suicide.

Aside from the all too common bloated story telling in today’s fiction, the story is obvious with no twists or turns. The characters act ridiculously. Jack has promised to kill Blue and all his family, but his daughter and son think little of this threat, even after Tammy’s husband is murdered. Toward the end, Blue’s son, Absolom, charges down on Jack with clearly no chance of surviving. It’s a stupid thing to do, and a bit of foolishness the character has never displayed. He’s killed instantly. It is at this point that Blue realizes he’s been a bad father. He didn’t give Jack the kind of support he needed, and he didn’t give Absolom space to become his own man.

In fact, the whole book ends up being about how Blue has screwed up. Yet he’s the only one left alive, except the children. And he hides behind them when Jack came gunning for him. I understand what Wheeler was trying to do. He was, in effect, slapping Jack in the face with reality. While that may work in real life, western fiction needs a more explosive confrontation. Wheeler ignores this to give Jack a “noble” end. Yet he pretty much ignores Jack’s death. We never see it. We barely see the result of it. And Blue doesn’t care how Jack died, either. Nor does Blue (or Wheeler, for that matter) care about the murdered man that started the book – who he was, where he came from, why he was killed. Ultimately, neither do we.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Ballard's Two Tons No Heavyweight

Two Tons of Gold
by Todhunter Ballard
Leisure Books, November 2003

This is one of the most violent westerns I have ever read. Apparently Two Tons of Gold was not published in Ballard’s lifetime. He died in 1980. His one-time associate and friend Sue Dwiggins Worsley writes an excellent introduction about a writer who is unknown today, giving a glimpse of a fascinating method of creating fiction. Dwiggins, however, offers no date for this novel. We’re left to examine clues.

Two Tons of Gold has some pulpy elements. There’s plenty of action. Some of the characters are fairly thin and straightforward. Ballard uses a pulp standard: elaborate disguises that thoroughly fool even friends. The disguises are in the form of full head masks that our hero is able to weave seemingly out of air; masks that Jim Phelps and his IMF team would envy. We get the sense that this book was written in the midst of the pulp era – except for some themes, which move the origination of the writing possibly into the 1960s or even the 1970s.

Mark Dorne, The Major, late of the Civil War, comes home to greedy industrialists and bankers who are taking over everything by force. Dorne’s parents are killed and this sets The Major on a course of vengeance. Alone for most of his reign of terror, Dorne uses his skill as a self-taught demolition man manufacturing the newly invented and not widely known explosive called dynamite. Along the way, Dorne picks up a few allies as they steamroll over the evil barons of big business and destroy their mining, banking, and logging interests.

The violence in the novel is two-fold. Dorne uses dynamite more than he does a gun. There is one scene where, after dynamiting closed a box canyon, he proceeds to drop TNT into the canyon and kill the posse trapped there. Ballard describes bodies flying about as a result of the explosions. He doesn’t stop, even when the trapped men throw down their guns and raise their hands. A lot of people are killed by dynamite throughout the book. Dorne often tries to avoid killing those he considers innocent – men who are just doing a job for the evil robber barons; men who aren’t really themselves evil. Yet he kills others who meet the same criteria. Dorne guns down a lone defender of the two tons of gold (which shows up very late in the story), yet warns a dozen men chasing him with ax handles and guns that a boat is about to explode. In the end, innocent or guilty, most of the characters die, even Dorne’s own lumbering aid.

The second level of violence is what is perpetrated on the little people – the miners, the loggers, the small investors. These people are trying to make a living and Dorne destroys their ability to feed their families. Ballard give short shrift to these people. He paints them all with a rough brush and with very thin paint. There’s no depth to any of them. However, he writes his character, The Major, as clearly justified in going on the vengeance trail after his innocent parents are murdered. But Ballard draws the trail all over the map. There is no real sense throughout the book that Dorne has a purpose other than to attack and kill big business. There is a nominal evil titular figure but he is not really shown as a scheming, menacing person. Instead, as his end is nearing, he is convincingly portrayed as a man who is confused as to why he is being attacked. He believes that all of his business efforts were made to better the community in addition to making him richer. And the truth is, he wasn’t evil. Ballard himself points out that by destroying the villain (who commits suicide as his world crumbles around him) Dorne has hurt the community. The Major admits that he cannot return the two tons of gold he stole to those small investors who were wiped out when the bank failed. To make amends he decides to give the gold to another man of big business who is portrayed rather thinly as a man of the people. This other mogul will use the money to build a giant tunnel that apparently needs building.

The novel has a modern feel in that it is incredibly distrustful of big business. Granted, strikebreakers are used to bust head – all of it off-camera – but other than that, the businesses are engaged in positive growth for the community. Ballard pays lip service to his anti-corporate beliefs (which may only extend to this novel) and expects the readers to follow along. It’s hard to do that when he gives none of these characters depth.

Another modern aspect is Ballard’s use of an anti-hero. The Major is clearly not a good guy. He may be a good man, but he’s really doing bad things. He kills wantonly, violently, and gives no indication of remorse. He is a model for anti-establishment, a rebel with a cause. He could easily have worn a black leather jacket with his hair pomaded into a pompadour, a knowing sneer cracking his face. That’s the mold from which Mark Dorne was cut.

There is a Billy-the-Kid-Syndrome kind of hero worshipping here. While employees of the corporation are after Dorne’s head, the down trodden and those who have lost their personal battles with the corporation find secret ways to help The Major. As the novel progresses, he becomes a cult figure, even loved by some of the bad guy’s henchmen. Dorne is surprised by this, and later astonished that one of his cadre would sacrifice his own life to save Dorne. But Ballard doesn’t really explore the nature of this universal phenomenon that played out in similar fashion for a number of real western characters. He uses it simply to get The Major out of many of the jams in which he finds himself.

All of this is minor, really. Ballard is a good writer who keeps you interested and the pages turning. Two Tons of Gold is a fast-paced, full on action story cut out of the classic pulp cloth. Simply for fun it’s worth reading. The question, then, is why it was never published. I think this was a story written during the pulp era and was rejected for one simple reason. The character of Dorne is a terrorist.

While justified in seeking revenge, Dorne’s plan is too broad. He kills too many people. In classic pulps the hero is in fact a hero who stands against amazing odds and wins, ultimately facing down the villain. Dorne faces similar odds but he attacks the workers, not the mastermind. He terrorizes a sweeping area, kills men who are not evil, destroys an entire economy, and feels no emotion about any of it. The last line of the book shows a television influence: “They had no idea what they would do next, but something would turn up. It always did.” You can hear the laughter and see the fade to black just before the final commercial. Dorne should have been moved by what he did, felt some emotion, looked back on the carnage and wondered if he had done the right thing. Something other than simply walking away.

Leisure has put out several other Ballard books over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if these themes are carried through in other stories.

Monday, March 07, 2005

McGuire's Gold a bit Tarnished

Texas Gold
by Tim McGuire
Berkeley – August 2004

There’s an old standard device popularized by Zane Grey in westerns. It’s the one where a girl – for a variety of reasons – pretends to be a boy and joins up with a trail herd. Grey used several variations on this theme. Of course, there was precedent in the old west. In the 1850s Charley Parkhurst began working as a stagecoach driver and became known as a reliable and tough customer. With one eye covered by a patch, Charley handled a team, smoked cigars, did a little drinking, played cards and dice, and even voted for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. It wasn’t until Charley’s death that he was revealed to be a she. Such happenings were, though, incredibly rare. Even Annie Oakley and Bell Starr, homely as they were, could never have been mistaken for anything but women.

McGuire uses this device earnestly and, to his credit, lets us in on it very early. Young Leslie Turnbow – an orphan living with a kind but cloistering guardian – has big dreams which are fueled by the musings of a man set to hang. Leslie, who goes by the name Les, is told that there is a cache of Confederate gold hidden in Texas, and the condemned man kindly tells Les how to find it. Of course, being a young girl, heading out on the 500-mile trip from Kansas to Texas is not something she can undertake alone. But with the convenient help of the town whores Les is given a disguise and teamed up with a couple of drovers taking a cavvy of cow ponies back to the home ranch.

Along the way, Les is beset by all manner of problems and conflicts – the standard fare in a trail story. Throughout, though, she is constantly faced with exposure as opportunities to strip bare seem to grow on trees. Eventually she is unmasked and the travelers discover the gold’s hiding place. But to their disappointment they find only gold certificates issued in Confederate currency, all of it worthless.

Because this is ultimately a journey story, Les is made to learn many things. You need to buy into the fact that she’s a complete idiot and wouldn’t even know to bring dry, seasoned wood for a fire or how to cook up a plate of beans. This is a little hard to believe, frankly. While Les lived in Abilene, Kansas is still part of the frontier. The time is 1870, or thereabouts, so people are using wood stoves. Les would have had ample opportunity to learn about firewood and cooking. That she doesn’t know some trail practices, however, is perfectly reasonable and McGuire exploits these fairly well.

Being a journey story, Les meets many people along the way. There is a spiraling mix of characters, in fact, that all seem to meet around Les’s campfire. There is the itinerant gambler/lady’s man, the rustlers, the angry husband chasing the gambler, and the lone wayward family heading west in a covered wagon. There is, in fact, a whole mess of free travel through what would have been some of the deadliest territory in the west. In 1870 the place was swarming with warring Indians and it wasn’t very safe to travel alone. McGuire’s characters move with little thought to Indians except when they have to pay tribute – in horses or cattle – to some very cultured braves collecting a toll.

The biggest problem is that Texas Gold is an unfulfilled promise. The first chapter tells us that we’re going to have a search for gold. That kind of the story suggests a different set of struggles than McGuire used and a concentration on the gold. Instead, we get the journey/coming of age story and the gold is used as a Hitchcockian McGuffin. By the end we get a TV-style epilogue where everyone has a laugh over finding worthless paper and they decide to head off into another adventure.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Somewhat Hazy Gunsmoke

Joseph West is a good writer. He plots well, he turns some good phrases, and he lets you see the world in which the story takes place. He’s taken all of these skills and applied them to the new Gunsmoke novel, Blood, Bullets, and Buckskin.

We are firmly in the Festus era with this book. The author sets the date at 1878 through the use (and eventual overuse) of a letter from the governor requesting Dillon’s help on a trivial matter.

For the most part I enjoyed the story. There were problems, but when I started reading I didn’t want to nitpick. Although I hadn’t read the three previous Gunsmoke books (penned by Gary McCarthy), online reviewers lambasted the novels with comments about the wildly out of character behavior by Dillon, Kitty, Doc, and Festus.

Yet, the further I read West’s book, the more those small problems grew. You get the feeling that West probably saw a few episodes, most likely of 1970s vintage and not the superior 1950s and 1960s black and white stories. He’s got Festus talking fairly accurately, even if he uses a few too many “Matthews”. Matt’s characterization, though, is uneven. At times West seems to have Dillon down pat. Other times he’s considerably off the mark.

A bit of irony leads off the novel. In James Arness’ introduction he recounts a time when he told writers to cut down on his dialog. This echoes sentiments directors (especially John Ford) had about John Wayne. The Duke’s dialog was usually pared to the bone and that simple action, as much as anything else, helped make him a star. Arness benefits from minimal dialog, too, by his own admission. But West often has Matt Dillion prattling on.

One of the biggest characterization problems with Dillon takes place before the main story opens but is recounted in a long bit of dialog in the first few chapters. In short, five years ago Dillon was unable to stop a man from nearly beating another man to death because he was convalescing from injuries sustained in another adventure. Dillon is shown raging impotently while Kitty cuddles him, crying. This is not Dillon. We’ve seen him shot, near death, rising from his sick bed to take care of the bad guys. Kitty and Doc always argue with him, but once he’s on his feet, they stand beside him.

Two other problems exist in this scene. First, it should have been told in flashback so Chester could have had a scene rather than a passing mention. This is just laziness on West’s part. The second problem is that Festus, who is hearing the story from Dillon, says he knows of but never met Chester. In the show, however, both men met several times. There was, in fact, a transition period as Chester was phased out and Festus came in. The two characters even had a number of scenes together.

Miss Kitty is off-key, too. West tries to explore the relationship she and Matt share. He starts with the premise that Dillon and Kitty love each other. That much is true, but the attempt at sexual tension, while trying to keep the relationship in a neutral position, doesn’t work. Kitty flies off the handle over nonsense. While Amanda Blake’s Kitty could boil over (and on occasion use a gun with deadly accuracy), it took a lot for her to get red mad at Matt.

Doc is nowhere to be seen and one wonders if West decided he couldn’t capture the character’s unique quality. Quint makes an appearance, but it is a perfunctory one, which is a shame. Festus is kidnapped at one point and Matt spends days looking for him. In the television show, Dillon would have engaged Quint as a tracker abilities. In fact, Quint would have volunteered.

The biggest problem, though, comes early, and is in fact signaled by the cover. We are treated to a big shot of Marshal Dillon in the foreground with an action sequence (which does not take place in the book) in the background. Dillon is dressed appropriately, the big US Marshal’s badge pinned on his shirt. The background image – a shootout on Front Street – shows Dillon’s office with a sheriff’s sign clearly in view. It’s an unnecessary confusion.

The misunderstanding of Matt’s authority is reinforced within the first few opening pages as we see Matt riding out far from Dodge, alone on the Kansas prairie. He’s chasing after some killers, and ready to close in for the capture. [West berates us here with a page or so of Matt’s introspection (something we get a lot of), but I don’t fault him for this. I’m sure he needed to get the word count up to appease the publisher.] Taken by surprise, the badmen don’t draw right away when Matt enters their camp. They bide their time. Yet they don’t seem all that concerned. They know Matt is a town marshal and he doesn’t have any jurisdiction outside of Dodge. Matt acknowledges this but tells the killers he’s going to take them in anyway.

Well, you know what happens, of course. But the story is tainted by this grievous error. West continues to pound home the point that Dillon is a town Marshal, and it has an enormous effect by the end of the story. I could have glossed over it if West had ignored Dillon’s jurisdiction, but he used it to provide Matt with an internal conflict at the climax.

No one who has ever seen even a few Gunsmoke episodes could mistake Dillon for a town marshal or a county sheriff. West made the choice deliberately because he was attempting to do something that should never have been done. He was trying to marry the television Dodge City with the real one.

For those of us who love the old west, we know that Dodge, while being a fairly wide open town for years, was not so homespun and rustic as it appeared on the CBS television show. We’ve seen photographs of the famous saloons with their rich, polished wood bars and green-baized gambling tables. We’ve seen the expansive rooms where gambling and live music played out every night. We know that the likes of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were town marshals, and that Doc Holiday came to town on occasion to fleece the hiders and trail hands. We know that Dodge was a fairly good-sized town, split down the middle – respectability and law and order to the north, and wild debauchery to the south. We know that in addition to a town marshal there was a county sheriff who lived within the city limits, too – and that one of the men to serve multiple terms was in fact the owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

The television Dodge is vastly different. It is, for the most of its years, a cow town. It’s rustic, Spartan in appearance and design. The only shot we get of the size of the town is the forced perspective painting on the back studio wall in the opening credits. Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon is a pine board affair with few embellishments. Rarely is there gambling. The entertainment is provided by percentage girls (women who seduce men into drinking), not by soiled doves. Matt Dillon’s Dodge is compact, perennially dusty, and it only has one lawman – the US Marshal.

West tries to bring these two disparate images together and it doesn’t really work. He brings historical fact into the story, and while such things make other novels ring true, his Gunsmoke has the hollow clunk of falsehood. For twenty years (and a few more with the reunion movies) we knew a special kind of Dodge City. It was a place where human stories played out on a dirt and rough wood stage. It was a place where one lawman could keep the fickle populace in line with a hard-spoken word and, if necessary, a single shot of a Colt .44. West wants the best of both worlds and doesn’t really capture either.

The end of the story is a fairly big mess. This is a tale of revenge with some range war overtones. The town divides out for the two factions, Gatling guns are brought in, lots of people die. Matt chooses one side, the lesser of two evils, and manages to put down the fighting.

This was way over the top and not at all in keeping with the show. Thematically, Gunsmoke dealt with very human, personal stories that tended to center around the seven deadly sins. The consequences were always devastating – but only for one person. These were morality plays, not action movies. West tries to imbue his story with the old values of the television show, but ultimately abandons those sentiments in favor of the modern perspective of moral ambiguity and unrealistic pyrotechnics. Shades of gray may have been as prevalent back then as they are today; that’s real life. But it’s not Gunsmoke.

Untamed is Raw L'Amour

Bantam has had a death grip on all things Louis L’Amour for decades. Without knowing the numbers, it wouldn’t surprise me if the (arguably) most famous writer of Westerns were responsible for a large percentage of the company’s profits. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find that Leisure Books – the only steady, indefatigable publisher of Western novels – corralled another one of L’Amour’s stories for the anthology, The Untamed West.

It turns out that the novel (the longest of the three stories included in this, the second compilation to include the triumvirate of popular Western authors) is a reprint of a 1950 pulp novel from Giant Western. Max Brand’s “Black Sheep” is fairly short. It sports the cloak of restoration that is popular now in which the pulp editor’s often heavy handed bowdlerization is removed in favor of the author’s original text. The results of such restoration are not always for the best. Zane Grey’s Ladies Home Journal short serial, “CaƱon Walls,” is included, and it is also in its original form.

L’Amour’s Showdown on the Hogback is reprinted as published in the pulp. It is an early version of what would become Showdown at Yellow Butte.

I’ve read both and, honestly, I don’t recall much of Yellow Butte. Hogback is not particularly memorable either, but it is at least fresher in my memory.

This story appears toward the end of the pulp era when the only magazines to hang on were westerns and science fiction, many of them converting to digests. Much is made in Jon Tuska’s introduction of L’Amour’s writing – and not a lot of it flattering. With veiled language, Tuska calls L’Amour a hack – a man who played fast and loose with facts, was forgetful of his own story continuity, benefited from savvy and lucky marketing, and virtually forced Bantam to take his work in first draft and unedited.

L’Amour’s stories have many flaws, but it’s the rare story that is not entertaining. Hogback is certainly entertaining. More than that, though, it is interesting to see the author developing in long format. L’Amour is often best in brief. His short stories have punch and the action carries the reader along at breakneck pace. When he keeps his novels to less than 60,000 words, his writing benefits a great deal, and so does the reader. Hogback is one of his early “novel” length stories. Soon after its publication he would write the Hopalong Cassidy pulp tales, and from there go on to publish more than 75 novels.

In Hogback, you get to see some early themes developing – the honest, intrepid hero of few words who takes a great deal of physical punishment; the extolling of the building of the West; the hard man who makes deep, lasting friendships; and the dogged adherence to a moral code regarding women. But in this novel you see L’Amour experimenting with the themes and methods of the writers who came before. You can see the influence of Grey and Ernest Haycox (and probably others) in his plotting and characterization. L’Amour was playing with all of these as he searched for the voice that would become very clear and eventually tower above the rest.

The story revolves around a range war. L’Amour’s hero, tough guy Tom Kedrick, is the only man who can come into the territory and put an end to the greedy land owner’s troubles with squatters. But Kedrick is an honorable man. He investigates and discovers that the squatters are in the right. When he switches sides, the greedy land owner snaps and orders Kedrick and all the squatters killed.

The ending is obvious, but that’s not a criticism. All traditional westerns end in a fairly obvious yet satisfying way. Kedrick has to fight against great odds, overcome many obstacles, and nearly die to see that justice prevails, and he does.

What’s most interesting, though, is L’Amour’s use of character types and depiction of the land paralleling some of his predecessors. Zane Grey was famous for lofty descriptions of the natural world. But he also used a couple of tricks that had thematic import in his stories. The one L’Amour borrows here is the secret canyon. In this canyon, the hero is trapped yet securely hidden. It’s a place no white man has ever seen. It is narrow and remote, yet there are ways in and out of it that only a clever and brave man can negotiate. L’Amour’s canyon in Hogback is a refuge for Kedrick as he recovers from wounds and escapes to think and to plot.

L’Amour also uses a device to build romantic tension of which Ernest Haycox was a master. Where Zane Grey would use one man and one woman (or at times two men with two women – using the different monogamous relationships to show parallels of development as well as express romance according to the characters’ maturity levels) Ernest Haycox liked to pit two women against each other for the love of one man. These women would be very different in nature. The sexier one would represent lust and desire, an unattainable prize that the unsuspecting hero suddenly had access to. She, too, would lust – not just for the man but for what riches or rewards he could bring her. The other woman, lovely yet simple, represents goodness, true love, and the finer desires of a wandering cowpoke’s heart, namely hearth and home. Although deeply attracted to the femme fatale, the hero would ultimately choose the better angel by the end of the story – a stark contrast to the noir stories of this time where the hero would always choose the dangerous dame early, and suffer for it for the rest of his short life.

In Hogback, L’Amour sets up these two characters and turns them loose on Kedrick. He follows true to form and is attracted to the glitzier of the two women. But very quickly he decides she’s not the one for him. The nice girl is the one he wants, and he spends much of the story proving himself to her and protecting her.

L’Amour’s use of these two characters is rather perfunctory, like he’d read similar scenes in a number of stories and decided to put one into his. But he doesn’t develop either woman very well, even in pulp terms, and doesn’t seem interested in playing out the type.

Still, you can see him experimenting – with characters, with descriptions, and with the themes that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The story is mildly enjoyable and it’s interesting to watch L’Amour as he begins the process of maturing and defining his unique voice.