Monday, September 05, 2005

"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.

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