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.

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