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.