Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hostile Is Friendly to Reader

The Hostile Land
by Wayne C. Lee
Leisure Books, 2009

Apparently offered in hardcover only in 1964, this February 2009 publication is the first paperback edition of The Hostile Land. To my mind this is one of the rare times that a book’s generic-sounding title perfectly fits the story. The book’s hero is literally surrounded in a hostile land. Too, while the beautifully pointed cover is generic enough to fit many kinds of stories, it is still perfectly suited to the deadly menace that endlessly threatens the characters within the volume.

Web Blaine is on the outs with his father, Eli Blaine, owner of the biggest ranching outfit in the Dutchman valley, the oddly-named Tree Ranch. The elder Blaine is trying to gather up the public land homesteads that have sprung up all over “his” free range ranch. Ostensibly used as farms, these 160 acre plots are withering during a prolonged dry spell. While Eli Blaine claims to be buying the homesteads legally his foreman, Sim Dalbow, is actively playing rough with the sod-busters. Men have been beaten, burned out, and killed.

The younger Blaine has his own plot of land and is trying to organize the small farmers to form a mutual protection compact. He’s a favorite of the sod-busters because of his stand against his father. He is well-liked in town, too. Valaree, a bookkeeper-cum-schoolmarm-cum-gold-digger cannot keep her eyes off him, and is thoroughly jealous of any other woman paying him attention. This sharp, icy, emotion plays into much of the trouble Web faces. She is the bookkeeper for general store owner Henry Farnsworth and his affairs, which include owning the mysterious Bell County Land Company. She finds out much about Farnsworth’s underhanded dealings – information that would help Web and the others fend off their attackers – but remains silent out of a false sense of integrity fueled by jealousy.

Web’s sister, Becky, is married to a semi-worthless man named Gil Harris who plays each side against the other in the hopes of maintaining neutrality. Early on he challenges Web when ramrod Sim Dlbow and his gunhands order Gil to keep Web from crossing his land. Gil has signed over his property to the land company with the promise that he won’t be kicked out of the territory. His land, with no public road available, lies directly between Web’s land and town, effectively landlocking the younger Blaine. Web refuses to be shut in and shows he is prepared to fight his way to town. Not only does Gil give in, but Dalbow’s gunmen back down, too.

Eli Blaine does not know he is being used by Dalbow. A ruthlessly stubborn man, Blaine has been run out of various territories in the past for his hard line against squatters. Moving the family to their current location in the Dutchmans meant never having to deal with squatters again, or so he thought. His stubbornness has opened the door to Dalbow’s murdering ways and the foreman’s secretive, double-dealing plans with storekeeper Farnsworth. He also steadfastly refuses to believe his estranged son when Web reports Dalbow’s underhanded dealings. He never sees – until the very end – that Dalbow schemes to oust Blaine and take over the ranch and all satellite homesteads.

One particular conceit that Lee uses is far fetched in the extreme. It removes almost all believability. But since it comes late in the story the reader can – if he closes one eye and winks with the other – ignore it. Lee asks us to believe that Dalbow, a known killer and thief from Texas, can hide out on the Tree Ranch, taking only $40 a month for more than a decade before he puts his plan in motion and without either being found out or reverting to type. Then Lee asks that you believe this clever criminal kept a briefcase full of incriminating documents, news stories, and photographs of his past and the pasts of his gunmen. This is quite ludicrous.

It is, however, necessary to the story’s resolution.

The rest of Lee’s story is quite well told, though. It builds one incident at a time until the pressure builds to bursting. Web is true to his nature, wanting to keep violence out of the land and hold together as many farmers as possible. The task, of course, is untenable and violence does erupt.

In Lee’s hands the characters – especially Web, Gil, and Valaree – are well-developed. Others serve the story in a plausible manner. The pace Lee maintains is a bit slow, but that tempo allows tension to build. The deck is truly stacked against Web, who stands nearly alone at the end. The finish, though, is never really in question, like most of these oaters. It is no less satisfying that Web is able to deal with Dalbow, convince his father of his stupidity, rescue a reformed Valaree, and oversee Farnsworth’s exile. We’re left with the knowledge that peace with reign, farmers will return, and that a good man and a good woman have a lifetime to spend with each other.

While not as sharp or as driving has his previously reviewed Blood on the Prairie, The Hostile Land is a good, solid entry; a satisfying read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fast-Moving Pioneer Pleases as Campfire Yarn

Panhandle Pioneer
by Bradford Scott
Leisure Books, 2008

As mentioned in an earlier review, Bradford Scott is the author of pulp favorites Walt Slade and Jim Hatfield, Texas Ranger features from the ‘30s and ‘40s that appeared in magazines like Thrilling Western, Five Western Novels and, appropriately enough, Texas Rangers. A prolific writer, Scott penned many non-series books, too. Panhandle Pioneer is a 1950s-vintage example of a light, snappy oater.

Knock-about Cliff Hardy is a young man with little on his mind and seemingly little in his head. An idea strikes him one day that nets him a wad of cash with the opportunity to earn a great deal more. Everyone in town laughs at him, and soon he becomes the joke of the county. But he keeps making money, and expands his business.

Soon, he’s buying land cheap and grabs up some of the best grazing range with water. The town stops laughing. In fact, he gains the attention of the biggest man in the Texas panhandle, Basset Shaw. Shaw has some plans for that once-ignored land, a rolling plain filled with grass and buffalo bones, and he is unhappy that Hardy is buying up huge chunks of it cheap. He begins a campaign of terror against Hardy.

With his loyal sidekick, Tom Cameron, the wunderkind matches wits with Shaw as he defends himself and begins stocking his range. Men are sent to threaten, others to ambush, and still others to destroy Hardy’s businesses. All are turned away with lethal force. Shaw is outfoxed at every turn, but his deadly imagination never flags. The county sheriff, Frank Nance, is made aware of all the trouble. He likes Hardy and realizes the young man is only defending himself, but he cannot legally touch Shaw. The land baron is well insulated.

Panhandle Pioneer is an episodic story. Scott moves us from set piece to set piece with no real end in sight. You know there should be a showdown between Hardy and Shaw, but the kind of build up to that end which other writers use regularly is absent. Hardy seems resigned to deal with Shaw’s attacks for as long as they continue.

Part of this attitude is because Hardy has fallen in love with Rita Sostenes, granddaughter of a famous Texas bandit and niece to Basset Shaw. Hardy does not want to provoke a showdown that will endanger his relationship with Rita. Also, Rita believes that down deep her uncle is a good man.

Another reason for the lack of a showdown is because Hardy approached Shaw early in the story. While their meeting was tense, Hardy came away from it with a little respect for the man.

Reality is not the main focus of this story. Scott writes with an almost “once upon a time …” style that gives the reader a sense of disconnection to events. The emotions are tame and regulated. There isn’t a lot of tension. He also goes into short dissertations that read like history lessons on things like barbed wire, the correct way to arrange drovers on a cattle drive, and the types of cattle used for beef. While none of these are dry or lack in entertainment, the reader is pulled out of the story, however briefly, to digest the material.

Also, coincidence and luck play a large part in the events. Ambushers can only bounce .45 slugs off of Hardy’s and Cameron’s heads. Deadly accuracy, it seems, is the purview only of the good guys. Unlike many stories, the hero always seems to have the jump on the bad guy. At just the right time, Hardy comes up with an idea that expands his business, outwits Shaw, and saves his own skin. Shaw is always a step behind.

All of this gives the reader the feeling of listening to an old moss back tell a whopper of a yarn while sitting around a campfire. And despite the lack of emotion or real tension, it’s a darn fine yarn. It’s easy to like Hardy, Cameron, Rita, and Sheriff Nance, and, like Hardy, oddly difficult to hate Shaw.

The end rides up fast – as fast as the speeding prairie fire that may or may not have been set deliberately. Shaw redeems himself under his terms. Hardy and Rita finally marry. Things look pretty good for all of them, by the end. For the reader, too, who should have had some fun along the way in this quick read.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Upcoming Books for August and September

For August 2009
Gunsmoke Masquerade
Peter Dawson
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

Guns of Dodge City
Tom Curry
Wheeler Large Print Western Hardcover

Someone had betrayed an Army battalion of innocent men — and now they lay dead, massacred, with useless guns in their hands. Captain Bob Pryor, sometimes known as the Rio Kid, followed the bloody trail to Dodge City, where the all-powerful gun lords were plotting an even greater evil.

The Rio Kid was heading for a cattle town shootout — with the deck stacked against him.

Shadow Riders
Les Savage, Jr.
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

Vendetta Canyon
Stan Lynde
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

The venerable Rick O’Shay and Latigo cartoonist turned to writing western novels about a decade ago. This is his seventh.

Sheepman Abel McKenzie and cattleman Zack Rainford were once the best of friends, but are now, in 1887 Montana Territory, mortal enemies. Their escalating feud threatens to throw the people of Meriwether County into a bloody range war. Three ranchers have already been killed, and the investigation into the homicides received only cursory review. One of those three men was McKenzie's employee. Deputy United States Marshal Merlin Fanshaw is sent to investigate and enforce the law. Shortly after his arrival in Meriwether County, Deputy Fanshaw's assignment is complicated by the activities of a corrupt sheriff, a mysterious range detective, and a clandestine romance between the shepherd's son and the cattleman's daughter. Deputy Fanshaw accepts the burden of their secret and becomes an ally to the young lovers. If the two young people get married, it could help unite the feuding families, or it could light the fuse on the lethal powder keg. With conditions in the area becoming more strained, the McKenzie and Rainford homes become armed camps, with malice running rampant between the cowhands and sheepherders. Can Deputy Fanshaw prevent any further bloodshed? What will it take for him to put an end to the Meriwether County War?

Master of the Mesa
William Colt MacDonald
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Hawk Nielson was quick-on-the-draw, ruthless -- and the most powerful man on the range. His holdings spread over thousands of acres and his power spread from one end of the Mesa to the other. His enemies were plenty -- all those he had cheated and crushed. Vard Whitlock had more reason to hate him than most. Land and money were the things Hawk cared about, until he had a son. Then his pride almost matched his greed. At last, Vard knew how to strike back at Hawk Nielson -- he just had to wait for the perfect opportunity. When the time was just right, Vard kidnapped the baby and hit the trail, where he began to work out the revenge demanded for Hawk Nielson. It took twenty-five years, but when the showdown finally came, it caused the most violent fight the Mesa had ever seen.

Trails of Rage
Todhunter Ballard
Wheeler Large Print Western Hardcover

Confederate guerrillas disguised as Indians are carrying out vicious and deadly attacks on stagecoach stations between Kansas and Colorado, trying to stir up trouble and cut the West in half. And the only man who could stop them Captain Jack Price of the Union Army — a prisoner of the Rebs …

The Curse of Montezuma
Les Savage, Jr.
Ulverscroft Large Print, Sagebrush Westerns

Rustler’s Range
Bradford Scott
Wheeler Large Print Western Hardcover

Jim Woodard’s lungs were bursting! He was trapped … hemmed in between the blazing canyon walls and the fire-crazed herd. There was only one possible escape — through 300 searing, suffocating yards to the canyon mouth. Could he reach it? Could he whip the panic-stricken cattle through the curtain of fire? Or was he doomed to perish in this hellish trap which the rustlers had set?

Black Aces
Stephen Payne
Leisure Books

To prove himself worthy of his sweetheart and impress his neighbors, a down-on-his-luck rancher sets out to unmask the Balck Ace Gang, a group of blackmailers terrorizing the town.

After losing both his ranch and his sweetheart, Tedro Ames has a choice: become the laughingstock of Swiftwater, or figure out a way to redeem himself in the eyes of the town. And then he gets the Black Ace, the calling card of ruthless blackmailers who have been terrorizing the area. This is Tedro’s chance. Unmasking the Black Ace Gang would make him a hero—even if he has to give up his life to do it.

Acres of Unrest
Max Brand
Leisure Books

Ross and Andy Hale were twin brothers who couldn’t have been more different in temperament. Ross firmly believed in sending his young son, Peter, back East for a proper education—even though he had to nearly bankrupt the ranch to do it. Meanwhile, Andy grew prosperous and taught his son, Charlie, everything he needed to know about roping and ranging.

Peter’s return from school is hardly triumphant—an accident left him without the use of his legs. But Peter is far from the crippled man his father thinks him to be. He’s still got his mind. And when mounted on a horse, he’s more than the equal of any cowpuncher. As Peter starts to rebuild the family ranch, Charlie’s bitterness and resentment grows. But neither man is exactly what he seems, so when tensions come to a head, it will be the ultimate showdown.

For September 2009
The Good Badman
Max Brand
Thorndike Large Print Western Series

In “Speedy’s Desert Dance” a young drifter runs into trouble after overhearing two outlaws plan a murder and kidnapping. A gripping story set during the War Between the States, “A Watch in the Wilderness” finds Marse Robert’s company in a trench as a sharpshooter in a tree above starts to shoot them, one by one. “The Good Badman” is Ed Garver, known in the ring as Kid Denver. It was hard luck that finished his fighting career, and that hard luck seems to follow him.

T.T. Flynn
Leisure Books

To save his hometown, reclaim his lost love, and clear his name, Jim Tenant will have to face down the very men who tried to kill him years ago.

The Mexicans call him Ponchito, Little Mild One. Buckshot Bledsoe knows the six-foot, scar-faced, blue-eyed man named Jim Tenant may look calm on the outside, but he’s burning with vengeance inside. Buckshot’s counting on that need for retribution to convince Jim to come back to San Angelo. Things there are bad and only getting worse. But to save the town, reclaim his lost love, and clear his name, Jim will have to face down the very men who came so close to killing him the first time—and he may not be lucky enough to survive twice.

Gunning for Trouble
L.L. Foreman
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Two relentless forces were at work in the Principe range, and Wade Forrest was caught smack dab in the middle of them. When Wade's gun made too much trouble for Deac Shanter, ramrod of the T Anchor ranch, he was ordered off the ranch by sundown. But Forrest was privy to secrets that could ruin Arne Bassett, so Bassett posted his gunhawks along the trail to see that Forrest never made it out of the country alive. It would seem that no matter which way he turned, his number was up. It was up to Wade to decide which man would have the first crack at killing him!

Gunsmoke Justice
Louis Trimble
Thorndike Large Print Western Series

It had been a long ride — all the way from the Bitterroot mountains of Montana. Brad Jordan was a big man, leathery and saddle-tough, but he was tired now and feeling mean, knowing the girl was waiting for his answer . . . knowing it meant killing. It was good country, worth fighting for. There was room enough in the valley, but Ike Quarles didn’t think so. He and his hired killers had served notice on Brad — drift or die. But Brad had decided: he was through drifting.

Shafter Range
T.T. Flynn
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

The Plains of Laramie
Lauran Paine
Leisure Books

Frank Travis had no idea why he was being chased. He might not have been able to get away from the posse thundering after him, but no way in hell was he going down without a fight. And sure enough, he managed to drown one of his pursuers…before being killed himself.

Parker Travis vows to get vengeance on the vigilantes when he hears his brother was murdered for a crime he didn’t commit. He doesn’t care that the man Frank drowned was the sheriff of Laramie. And he doesn’t care that the dead man’s brother has taken over as the new sheriff. Because no one is above the law, and Parker is determined to see justice is done.

Smoke Tree Range
Arthur Henry Gooden
Leisure Books

Lee Cary goes against the patriarch of his family when he champions the rights of a young woman to help keep her ranch out of the greedy clutches of his grandfather.

Lee Cary came through the swirling dust and grit of a bitter sandstorm just in time to save Nan Page’s life. Yet his chivalry might have been all for naught. Lee’s grandfather, Jim Cary, is looking to expand his already impressive Smoke Tree Range, and he wants Nan’s land…at any cost. For the first time in his life, Lee will have to take a stand against his own family—to rescue Nan, to do what’s right, to become his own man.

Hired Guns
Max Brand
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Billy Buel didn't look like a man who could inspire fear. He was a slight man with boyish good looks and a gentle manner, but he was also a fearsome fighter with hands or guns or knives. Billy Buel was one of those rare men who had learned from every defeat he'd ever been handed. For nine years a feud had raged between the Benchleys and the Camps. At last, they decided on a two-man duel to settle their grudge. Now Billy Buel, hired by the Camps, faced Ames Benchley for the showdown. "Choose your signal for the draw," Ames declared. "You heard that owl hoot;" Billy Buel asked, "The next time he hoots we go for our guns."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Bloody Good Prairie

Blood on the Prairie
Wayne C. Lee
Leisure Books, May 2008

There is an overarching conceit that the author uses to create dynamic tension and spark events that must be accepted to fully enjoy the book. If you do, then this Ace Double-style novel is a pip.

Written in 1963 and published by Arcadia House (not Ace), Blood on the Prairie is a revenge story on a slow burn. Wade Harper has been searching for Herman Dack, a slick hombre who killed Harper’s partner and got away clean. Dack has settled in a town called Paradise, a place engineered by Wade Harper’s father, Jason, and is now home to the old man and Wade’s sister, Jennie. Dack has made himself into a respected and important citizen, a man who is beloved by Jason and engaged to Jennie.

Lee’s conceit builds off this situation and directs the actions of all the characters. In short, no one believes that Dack is evil and a killer. Not even Wade’s father or sister. This has an alienating effect; it puts Wade on the outside and unwanted in the community.

Undaunted, Wade refuses to give in. He spies on Dack, takes a beating from the "businessman’s" gunhand friends, and is stymied at every turn from finding proof of the man’s past guilt and current plans to take over the valley. For his part, Dack continues to smile infuriatingly and keeps his hands clean.

Things turn, as they will in such potboilers. Dack’s greed and evil nature eventually get the best of him. Wade’s persistence wears down Dack so that he cannot help but show his true nature. While the end comes quickly (and Jason and Jennie’s change of opinion snaps around whiplash fashion), the action carries the reader to a satisfying – if not unexpected – conclusion.
In fact, this good old-fashioned, leather-slapping, gun-crashing, fist-crunching yarn is a sheer pulpy pleasure.

Lee’s writing is crisp. He moves the story along at a fine pace. Unlike other short Ace Double-style novels, Blood on the Prairie does not feel as if a few scenes are missing that would make the plot work. Lee’s story is sharp, and if some of his characters and situations are familiar, it doesn’t matter. We read these old oaters for the sheer fun they impart.

Lee writes both dialog and description with energy and interest. He’s a welcome addition to Leisure’s publishing schedule – a company I often applaud for reprinting many pulp era and classic paperback era westerns each year. Hopefully another Lee work will be seen very soon.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Merry #@%^&!! Christmas, Skye Fargo!

North Country Cutthroats
by Jon Sharpe
The Trailsman #314
Berkley Books

While I haven’t read many Trailsman books, it isn’t hard to imagine that North Country Cutthroats is about as Christmasy as it gets for series hero Skye Fargo.

It’s a few days before Christmas and Skye has gotten caught by a snowstorm in Brule City and has taken a job as a shotgun rider for a stage company. It happens that an old friend of Skye’s is the driver for the stage, a big brute of a fellow named Grizzly Olafson. Olafson is a broad, brawling character, full of deep laughs, bear hugs, and endless appetites. But he’s a loyal friend.

The story is straightforward. The pair have to get the stage to Devil’s Lake by Christmas despite heavy snow, delivering a few passengers and a strongbox filled with the payroll for the nearby Army fort. This month’s anonymous "Jon Sharpe" adds a touch of mystery by adding a Russian beauty to the passenger manifest, a woman whose constant furtive glances and sudden reactions lead Skye to believe she’s running from someone.

Driving in thick snow can be problematic. I’ve never had the opportunity to be on a stagecoach in winter, but the author and I seem to agree that you just can’t do it with wheels. So he has Olafson remove the wheels and attach heavy skis to the stage. Maybe this was done at some point in history, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, though, as it’s just a devise to move the plot forward.

As usual, there are four or five sex scenes in the book. What I like about these scenes is that the women are as mercenary about sex as is Skye Fargo. Whether driven by lust or other motives, they all but rape our hero.

The Russian gal runs hot and cold toward Skye, though, depending on what has spooked her at that moment. The wife of an Army lieutenant has designs on our hero almost from the start. But after he rescues her from a clumsy rape attempt by some rough edged cowboys, she cannot wait to yank down his drawers.

Turns out, though, she isn’t married to the soldier, and he isn’t a lieutenant. They are on the stage to rob it of the strongbox. And while she says she wanted to bed Skye before killing him, she just can’t bring herself to pull the trigger. It’s a fatal mistake. When Skye catches up to her, he has no trouble drilling her with his .44. No euphamism in this.

Other adventures await on the trip. The strongbox is a considerable magnet for thieves, despite the fact that Olafson says he’s never had trouble on the stage run. Skye handles all problems that arise, although it isn’t easy for him. Rather than being a superman, he works hard to stay alive and fulfill his charge, overcoming setback after setback.

The end is worth forgetting, however. Turns out the Russian gal is being followed. Other Russians want her dead, and want to get her large, heavy trunk. (Again, no euphamism here.) Skye figured there was some sort of treasure inside the trunk. Instead of gold, though, the Russian girl has been hauling dirt from the motherland. She wants to grow the finest roses, just like her mother had done, and so she has taken dirt from her flower bed, and rocks from her rock garden, to use in the new country. Of course, why the Russian bad guys have been chasing her and trying to kill Skye is never explained. Maybe, like the Christmas "theme," it just doesn’t matter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Upcoming Books For June and July

For July 2009

Seven Slash Range
by Bennett Foster
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Rider of Death Valley
by Dane Coolidge
Leisure Books

Valley of Outlaws
by Max Brand
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

The Quest
by Max Brand
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

Long Bow
by Lauran Paine
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Six-Gun Caballero
by L. Ron Hubbard
Galaxy Press

from Midwest Book Review
"The plunging action of Six-Gun Caballero takes place on the ranch of Michael Patrick Obannon, who finds the one thousand acres he inherited from his father overrun by a band of renegades bent on keeping the land themselves. The plot pits Obannon's raw courage against seemingly unsurmountable odds as he makes a lone stand against the desparadoes. The late L. Ron Hubbard wrote hundreds of novels and short stories in the fields of science fiction, mystery, action/adventure, and westerns. Six-Gun Caballero is a "time lost" classic from 1938. Highly recommended for all western adventure fans."

The Cowpuncher
by Bradford Scott
Leisure Books

Shadow On The Land
by Wayne D. Overholser
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

Zane Grey's Lassiter: Brothers Gun
by Jack Slade
Leisure Books

For June 2009

Range of the Golden Hoofs
by John Trace
Leisure Books

The Trial of Apache Junction
by Lewis B. Patten
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

"Sheriff Owen Buck has Johnny McGrath in jail, waiting to hang for killing the man who was hired to evict him from his homestead. To make matters worse, he's also accused of raping the judge's wife! Buck is caught between the demands of the cattlemen — who long to see McGrath hanged — and the settlers, who want him to go free. And as Buck tries to keep the peace, Apache Junction seethes with violence simmering beneath the surface, just waiting to erupt into a bloody hell. Sheriff Owen Buck is an honorable man and won't be swayed. He'll do what is right and then pick up the pieces of his town."

Lawman: Massacre Trail
by Lyle Brandt

This is the fourth in a traditional Western series starring gambler turned lawman Jack Slade.

"U.S. Deputy Marshal Jack Slade must stop cross-country carnage.

"The homestead killers have been cutting a bloody swath across Oklahoma Territory, leaving behind a trail of corpses, slaughtering whole families on isolated farms and stealing their livestock. Slade follows the trail of bloodshed to the town of Paradise, where he aims to stop the butchers— before Paradise becomes a hell on earth."

Cutthroat Canyon
by William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle Books

Despite being gone for the past several years, William W. Johnstone keeps churning out fun potboiler Westerns. Digging deep into the writer's left over files, J.A. Johnstone (relative or pseudonym?) builds on ideas the elder Johnstone left unfinished. Cutthroat Canyon is the third in the new Sidewinders series.

"Sometimes, it's bad to be good. That's what happens when Scratch Morton and Bo Creel are rewarded with a gold mine for saving a rich man's bacon. The catch: this mine is a magnet for marauding Mexican banditos. Budding capitalists, Scratch and Bo fight back. That's when they discover that the thieves aren't who they thought they were, some really bad guys are on the way, and a beautiful woman might just be the most dangerous bandit of all - the kind that can steal your heart. For Scratch and Bo, this gold mine might make them rich. But it's more likely to get them killed - just as soon as they can figure out who wants them dead..."

Wheel of Fortune
by Max Brand
Leisure Books

The Hunkpapa Scout: A Western Trio
by Will Henry
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

By Way of Wyoming
By Curtis Bishop
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Bishop was an old hand at the pulps. He appears to have spent much time writing for sports pulps like Fight Stories, The All-America Sports Magazine, Best Sports, Football Stories, Baseball Stories, and Ten Story Sports; and for the Western pulps of the '30s and '40s like Lariat Story Magazine, Texas Rangers, Big-Book Western Magazine, and Western Action. A Tennesseean by birth, Bishop died in at the age of 55.

Range Feud
by Ray Hogan
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

"On his way to his friend's ranch, Jess Holloway sees two men spooking a herd of cattle into a stampede, running toward a butte's sudden rim. If they go over the rim, the cattle will be killed. There is no way Jess can know that in trying to stop the stampede, in tangling with the two riders who instigated it, he is going up against men working for his friend, and that such an effort will make him hated at the very ranch he intends to ramrod."

Son of a Fast Gun
by Hascal Giles
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Santa Fe Wagon Boss
by Cliff Farrell
Thorndike Large Print Western Series Hardcover

The Ridgerunner
by Ray Hogan
Thorndike Large Print Western Series Hardcover

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ups and Downs Along The Way

The Way of the West
Leisure Books
October 2008
Long Ride, Hard Ride
by Elmer Kelton

The Way of the West appears to be an experiment by Dorchester Publishing’s Leisure Books, one that has not been repeated. It is a trade paperback, a larger size (8¼ by 5¼) than the smaller mass market paperback, and sells for $12.95. The reason for the experiment is not entirely clear. There are only three short novels included in the volume, one original by Cotton Smith, one from the late pulp era by Elmer Kelton, and one by Max Brand that is often reprinted. Leisure may be marketing this package for the library market where larger books may get more attention. Your average reader of Westerns, though, is probably not going to plunk down twice what it usually costs for a standard paperback that contains only marginally less fiction. Too, there really isn’t a consistency in the type of stories told, or the way they are told. West is more of a sampler, which highlights Kelton (the best of those included), who is not part of the Leisure stable of writers.

On to the stories …

Kelton’s entry is Long Ride, Hard Ride and was originally published in the late pulp Western Novels and Short Stories, their April 1953 number. It covers familiar ground that includes the late Civil War era, the Southwest – namely New Mexico – and warbound Comanches. Despite how familiar its themes and scenes are with the reader, as well as with the writer, the novella is fresh and entertaining while at the same time reminiscent of some great movies of the era.

Lieutenant Miles Overstreet is in charge of a motley band of soldiers who are more at home in a stockade than sitting on Confederate Army mounts. Overstreet came afoul of a jealous superior and was cast into New Mexico where Southern interests were being overrun by Federal forces. Most of his men hate him, and the feeling is mutual.

By chance Overstreet stumbles upon information that leads them to a hacienda where a cache of arms, ammunition, and gunpowder await a Union train of heavy wagons. Overstreet’s dreams of glory suddenly come alive again as he plans to capture the train and take the much needed weapons to Confederate forces in hopes of fighting back the Union horde.

Comanches are an ever-present danger, like a bogie-man floating in the shadows of the night. But glory for the Confederacy, and redemption for himself spurs Overstreet onward despite the danger and the malevolence of his rebellious men.

With little effort the gray capture the Union troop and their wagons. All of the soldiers head out for a known Confederate location, the blue disarmed captives. To ensure a passing Union patrol does not fire on the vulnerable wagon train, Overstreet takes a fiery woman named Linda Shafter hostage and seats her prominently atop one of the wagons. She is the daughter of the hacienda’s Union-supporting master. It is Overstreet’s thought that a Union patrol would not hesitate to kill other soldiers, even their own, to keep the munitions from falling into the wrong hands, but they would not kill a woman.

Linda Shafter is the love interest in the piece. Overstreet is stricken with her on first look; she requires a little more time to warm up to him. It takes a Comanche raid and near death for all of them before she does. Although it is an ill-fated love as Overstreet must ride off into the sunset by story’s end.

If Long Ride, Hard Ride wasn’t filmed in the 1950s or early 1960s, it should have been. Everything about it screams motion picture. The proud lieutenant, the rough, spiteful enlisted men, a tough sergeant, a willful yet ultimately pliable girl, an improbable love story, enigmatic Indians, a slimy trader-cum-villain, and a stalwart, almost paternal enemy captain. There are more classic character types, too. Characters that you have seen before in any number of Western movies from the past 60 years. In fact, reading the story you feel as if you are watching a movie. Maybe one of he better Audey Murphy entries, or possibly a Glenn Ford picture.

Regardless of familiarity, Kelton’s story is compelling, suspenseful, and full of passion. Y may know that the hero will prevail, but you are tense through to the end uncertain just how he’ll do it.

This is an excellent, classic novella. Well worth your time.

Morning War
by Cotton Smith

Now, hang on. This actually ties up ….

Ralph Compton was just starting out in the 1990s when he got a phone call from a guy who wanted nothing more than to join with fellow Western writers and discuss choices. New to the WWA and publishing success, Mr. Compton was eager to talk and friendly about it. The wanna-be had noticed that Mr. Compton had explored fully a number of scenes in his first Trail epic, The Goodnight Trail, (one or two of these the wanna-be thought could have been left sketchy) while not developing others. He asked Mr. Compton in a respectful way to explain why he had made those choices.

Writers make a lot of choices. In fact, it may be that they make more artistic choices than even actors. Nearly every word is a choice. Nearly every action can make a change in the story, whether in direction or pacing or ultimate meaning. Dialogue, too, can alter reader understanding or offer more or less character insight. Piled up, these choices can draw a reader deeper into a story or, done badly, can break the unwritten contract with the author and tear a reader right out of the story.

Mr. Compton was only too happy to talk about this question from the wanna-be. He said that his editor had asked him to build up certain scenes, while leaving others a little more threadbare. It hadn’t been Mr. Compton’s choice. It had been his editor’s.

Likewise, Cotton Smith has made a lot of choices in the second entry in The Way of The West. His novella, Morning War, reveals through these choices – knowingly or not – an inner desire of the author to be a teacher. Now, the wanna-be from above knows Mr. Smith, in passing, and his profession is not teaching. However, as a moss back in the field of marketing and advertising, he undoubtedly takes on that role from time to time with the up-and-comers in his field.

Unfortunately it is primarily the teacher that is speaking in Morning War, not the storyteller. You can see this in the way he describes in minutia everyday living in the late 1800s. Things that take you away from the plot and action. You can see it in the lists of things that have no bearing on the story. At one point a couple of evil cowboys are threatening the hero’s girlfriend who runs the general store while at the same time they are trying to buy feminine products from her. It is an odd mix of events, but the latter never comes into play. We don’t know who the products are for, and it never bears on the story. It’s a meaningless choice, and it only serves to confuse rather than illuminate.

Most of this seems to be done to express the author’s knowledge of the era, something that would be showing off from another writer. Instead, it is Mr. Smith’s inner teacher instructing us about the era. Telling us what products were available back then for common ailments, or the things people needed to survive. None of this plays out in the story. It is simply a history lesson.

As for the story and characters, they stand in an unplanned, stark contrast to the previous story in the book, Long Ride, Hard Ride. While both are familiar in the history and language of Western stories, one is yet fresh and inviting while the other is a painful exercise in everything that should not be done by a writer. At least, that’s the way it appears to this reviewer.

Bear in mind that the focus in this blog is to review traditional, even pulpy Westerns on their own terms. There is, to this reviewer’s mind, far too much fluff, modern language, and politically correct attitude in many of the Westerns written today. Add to that the fact that so much of the current Western crop is overwritten and florid … well, there just seems to be comfort and enjoyment in the quick, well-told tale of yesteryear.

This is not to say that Mr. Smith’s story was PC and florid, it was not. It is simply that so many of his choices were made badly.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Rio Kid Rides Again!!

Frontier Guns
by Tom Curry
The Rio Kid Western
December 19, 1939 issue
Better Publications (original)
Adventure House (reprint)

The Rio Kid, Rider for the right, blazes into battle when passion for plunder and greed for power rowel the border country! Follow Captain Pryor of Custer's Brigade as he plunges into mortal combat against the "Eagle!"

The lead “novel” in this classic pulp series is actually the very first in the adventures of the Rio Kid. With this adventure Bob Pryor, the Kid, begins a 76-issue run that ended in May 1950.

For those who do not know, Adventure House is a small press publisher specializing in pulp reprints. They have been around for about 20 years. They started with magazines that discussed the pulps in all their variety, reprinting key pulp stories in each issue. The fiction section became more popular with readers so Adventure House publisher John Gunnison readjusted his focus and in the process nearly single-handedly invented the modern pulp reprint business model and format.

Gunnison created Pulp Review, a magazine with all reprints from the pulp era. The publication is up to its 106th number and marks as one of its great accomplishments the entire Purple Invasion run from Operator 5. Alongside the renamed High Adventure, Adventure House publishes four full magazine reprints each month. Today he is nearly one-third the way through reprinting the G-8 and his Battle Aces series and he has taken a large bite out of the Phantom Detective and Secret Agent X series. The Rio Kid is his first western. Hopefully there will be more from this series, and perhaps from the rare Pete Rice series, too (editorial wish list).

There’s good reason for reprinting the Rio Kid: he's a true “hero” pulp, something Adventure House focuses on. Bob Pryor is fully grounded in the West, but his accomplishments are a bit on the wild side. His enemies, at least in this first issue, are hidden masters of crime who go by mysterious names. The Kid fights The Eagle this time, a fellow not yet ready to give up on his plundering ways now that the Civil War is done.

In contrast to the pulpy aspects of a masked villain, Bob Pryor involves himself with numerous historical figures, including a young General Custer, Benito Juarez – liberator of Mexico and deadly enemy of dictator Santa Ana – and Big Foot Wallace, famed mountain man.

There are many twists and turns as the Rio Kid tries to stop a land grab in which the Eagle has killed Pryor’s parents and many neighbors in order to steal all of the choice ranches. Despite the deep personal tragedy, the Kid plays it cool in order to maintain his anonymity. But the gang recognizes him and he is forced to flee for his life with guns blazing.

While on the run, Pryor makes friends with Juarez, reunites with Custer (his old commander), and finds the ranch families who were attacked by the Eagle’s men and fled into hiding in the deep timber. His adventures stretch up and down the Rio Grande and to both sides of the border. The Eagle and his minions, with treachery and murder, chase the Kid all over Texas, and vie for the red gold of Leguna – the lost mine.

Within these frenetic pages are so many comfortably familiar character and plot points which writer Curry takes and weaves confidently into real events of the time that played out in the region.

Make no mistake. This is no history lesson. This is pure pulp at its clichéd best. It reads quick and easy, each page is full of fun and action. While a steady diet of this much fluff can rot your teeth, The Rio Kid Western Frontier Guns is a welcome addition to the library. And like with almost all of the Adventure House offerings, we’re grateful to John Gunnison for making these classics available again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

For April 2009

The Unforgiven
by Alan LeMay
Leisure Books Reprint

This is not the book form of modern classic starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman. Instead, it is the source of the forgotten classic starring Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Lillian Gish, and Audie Murphy, and directed by John Huston.

"The Texas Panhandle was a harsh and unforgiving place, but the Zachary family managed to get by. Until their world was upended by an old enemy who started a vicious rumor about the true identity of beautiful seventeen-year-old Rachel Zachary. Now their neighbors want her dead, and a band of Kiowa warriors are out to claim her for their own. There’s only one man who will stand up for her. But in protecting Rachel, he might just be signing his own death warrant."

by Wayne D. Overholser
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

"The Tomahawk Ranch was the biggest outfit in Salt Creek Valley. Kirk's father built it with his own harsh strength and controlled it with a fierce will. And nobody — not even his own sons — ever dared tell him what to do with it. The ranch was the best grazing land in the entire valley, and the Salt Creek settlers were getting desperate. Kirk's father had spent a lifetime running roughshod over the rights and pride of his neighbors, and he held on as the settlers faces grew even more grim. Only Kirk seemed to understand that they were headed straight for a range war. And it would be the worst kind of range war — neighbor against neighbor, and father against son."

Curry: A Western Trio
by Max Brand
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Sheriff of Hangtown: A Western Duo
by Lauran Paine
Five Star Wester Series Hardcover

"Wesley Potter is the local law. One of his friends in the community is Dick Ruffin, an old-timer who has long raised horses on his small ranch. Ruffin is shot at close range without apparent motive - and there aren't any suspects. Potter can find no clue at Ruffin's ranch when he goes out there to investigate and to bury old Dick. But that night in town Potter's suspicions are raised when a stranger tries to sell Dick Ruffin's guns at the general store. "

Dorn of the Mountains
by Zane Grey
Leisure Books Reprint

"...the next moment he heard quick hoof beats of trotting horses. Peering out, he saw dim moving forms in the darkness, quite close at hand. They had approached against the wind so that sound had been deadened. Five horses with riders Dorn made out - saw them loom up close. Then he heard rough voices."

Guns on the High Mesa
by Arthur Henry Gooden
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

The Man From Laramie
by T. T. Flynn
Leisure Books

Finally! The Man From Laramie (1954) is back in print! Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing) has begun to reprint books that provided source material for some of the most famous Western movies ever. They have recently reprinted The Searchers (John Wayne's/John Ford's masterpiece), Destry Rides Again (from Hollywood's "Best Year" - 1939 - starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, The Unforgiven (above), and Stewart/Anthony Mann's classic, Laramie. If ever Leisure were to create a Western companion imprint to its wildly successful Hard Case Crime series, The Man From Laramie would be the first. It's a dark, powerful, tough story with solid characters, action, and not a small mystery.

"The foreman lay in the dust of the street, his face beaten and puffed, his hair matted with sweat and grime. And over him stood Will Lockhart, swaing with a deadening fatigue that barely left him on his feet.

"'Why'd you do it?'" the man asked him.

"'Well,'" Lockhart said, "'you might say on account of some good wagons of mine that burned up. Or you could blame it on a rope that dragged me ways on the ground. But you'd be real close if you asked me about a brother of mine. Yeah, I guess I'd have to tell you. Because he's dead ...'"

For May 2009

Salt-Lick Range
by Lauran Paine
Wheeler Large Print Western

"When Deputy U.S. Marshall Dan Miller arrived in Jefferson, Idaho Territory, the Salt-Lick war was already in the making. After he'd been there a week, U.S. Marshall Fred Clampett was ambushed and nearly killed, leaving Dan the only lawman in the territory. It was Dan's hard logic which prevented bloodshed - 'til the last day when his own blood got spilled."

Pass Creek Valley: A Western Duo
by Wayne D. Overholser
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

In the main story, "Kim Logan has always worked as a gun hand, for the last year as trouble-shooter for the great Clawhammer Ranch owned by Peg Cody. The Clawhammer is now locked in a desperate struggle for mastery of the range with Hank Dunning, owner of the HD. The struggle between these two ranches is further complicated by the fact that Peg Cody wants the smaller ranchers on the mesa to be forced off their land so the Clawhammer can have access to their graze. This is something with which Kim Logan has no sympathy. But his most pressing job is to fetch to the Clawhammer a man named Yuma Bill who is coming in by stage, presumably with a bundle of money to help the local banker. Logan is certain that HD riders will hold up the same stage to get at Yuma Bill, and he intends to beat them to it."

The Cuchillo Plains
by Ray Hogan
Center Point Large Print Hardcover

Chaparral Marauders
by Tom Curry
Wheeler Large Print Western

Maverick Basin
by Dane Coolidge
Five Star Western Series Hardcover

This old timer was originally serialized in four parts in the biweekly The Popular Magazine from July 7 to August 20, 1920.

"Riding on the trail into Maverick Basin, Hall McIvor is waylaid at gunpoint by Isham Scarborough and his brother Red and is taken on foot to a dark room in an abandoned cliff-dwelling to be questioned. The Scarboroughs are convinced the stranger is a gunfighter, riding to join the Bassett clan. If so, they intend to hang him right there. Telling them his name Hall insists he is just riding through, has no knowledge of the Bassetts, and that he is searching for someone. Then things really get rough ... "

Bullet Brand
by Bradford Scott
Wheeler Large Print Western

Leisure often gets its pulp reprints from the large print and/or hardcover library publishers. They've been reprinting a number of the Bradford Scott stand-alone novels as well as his short pulp magazine work with his great Texas Ranger heroes Jim Hatfield and Walt Slade. Bullet Brand is another of Scott's stand alone stories. With luck Leisure will reprint this one, too, so the rest of us can read it.

"Black Pete became Walt Slade's co-partner. Sheriff Trayner tried to warn Slade but wound up fighting for his life. Marshall wrote a will in blood, with Slade the reluctant beneficiary. Undercover Texas Ranger Slade battles six-gun treachery to save his friends and the border country from the vicious terror of a killer-crazy outlaw."

Wilderness #60 - Outcast
by David Thompson
Leisure Books

This venerable series hits a bit of a milestone. The series is based on the true-life journals of Nathaniel King, one of the early mountain men, and his ever-growing mountain family. Thompson's books develop various journal entries and corroborating accounts to build a literary version of the King family. While on the thin side, each entry is packed with plenty of action and plot twists.

Fighting Rawhide
by Lewis B. Patten
Ulverscroft Large Print Hardcover

by Robert B. Parker
Berkley Premiere Paperback Edition
by Robert B. Parker
Berkley Hardcover

The follow-up to Appaloosa, Resolution continues hired gun Everitt Hitch's journey in what Publisher's Weekly calls "...a sparse, bullet-riddled rumination on law and order, friendship and honor." Parker seems enamoured of the western and these themes (or is he just making another bucketful of cash?) because another sequel is also available this month. This third novel, Brimstone, follows Virgil Cole and Everitt Hitch on a journey through New Mexico and Texas to find the love he lost in Appaloosa. Can another movie be far behind?

.45-Caliber Widow Maker
by Peter Brandvold
Berkley Paperbacks

A prison wagon of caged killers means hell on wheels for Cuno Massey...

One of Brandvold's numerous continuing series, this is the fifth in the .45-Caliber entries. His work enjoys a lot of what is good about pulps without all of the fluff and puffery and pretenses of many current western writers.

Excellent Traditional Action-, Character-filled Western

Revenge of the Mountain Man
by William W. Johnstone
Pinnacle Books

This is the fourth in the long-running western-action series, The Last Mountain Man. Actually, there is a new "Last Mountain Man" series, released after Johnstone’s death, with the character Matt Jensen, the adopted son of the actual Last Mountain Man, Smoke Jensen. Be that as it may, Revenge is early in the first series when Johnstone was well and at the height of his writing prowess.

Revenge of the Mountain Man is a fun book. Full of action, gunplay, humor, bad guys that are really bad guys, and good guys that don’t put up with BS.

Among the better scenes are when Smoke’s wife Sally tries to explain to her New Hampshire born-and-bred parents, brothers, sisters, and other kin her love for the West and Smoke’s philosophy of justice and life. For those who haven’t read any of the books in this series, Smoke has a very simple philosophy – one akin to John Wayne’s character in The Shootist, J.B. Books – "I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I do not do these things to others and require the same of them."

Smoke’s philosophy is in full bloom in this book. He is out for revenge, and makes no apologies. While away from his homestead, a number of outlaws arrive and nearly kill Sally. She recovers fairly quickly from her gunshot wounds, all the while watching her husband turn into a caged tiger, wanting to go after the attackers. Smoke knows that such violence will continue until either he is dead or the hardcases responsible for the attacks are six feet under. He gets word that one of the hardcases is named Rex Davidson, and that he has a grudge against Preacher, Smoke’s mentor. With the mountain man Preacher presumably dead, Davidson wants to take out his hate on Smoke. Shooting Sally was nothing more than a calling card to lead Smoke into a trap. Smoke realizes this but goes after Davidson none-the-less.

Pregnant, Sally packs up and leaves their home, the Sugarloaf, to return temporarily to her family in New Hampshire. She fully supports Smoke in what he must do, is proud of him, and understands that there will be a high body count by the time he’s through.

Davidson is holed up in a small valley town that he built and populated with other hardcases and psychopaths. The law has tried to rout the gang, but the valley and town are too well fortified. Smoke devises a plan where he plays a fop named Shirley DeBeers and then uses his natural artistic talents to set up an undercover identity that will put outlaws at ease. The plan works. He meets a tough hombre, stands for the man’s hazing, and is ultimately judged as a harmless sissy. In fact, outlaws enjoy having him around. Not only is he fun to pick on, but his sketch portraits of them become prized.

Unknown to the criminal band, however, Smoke has arranged with a band of Utes friendly to him, and a sheriff and his posse, to attack the criminal stronghold after Smoke has been accepted into the town. The plan works fairly well. Most of the criminals are killed. But Davidson and a handful of his faithful escape the hail of lead and disappear. It becomes clear that they are heading to New Hampshire to kill Sally and the baby.

Along with an old friend and ally, Louis Longmont – gambler, raconteur, and fast gun – and an Arizona Ranger named York, who had been undercover in the valley town, Smoke crosses the country to get to Sally in time.

Johnstone provides several climaxes in this story with many gunfights that produce a very high body count. He also turns his stuffy New England father-in-law into a western-style man who becomes quite capable of defending home and loved ones with fist and six-shooter without relying on an effete legal system.

Johnstone has fun with his characters, wild and unrealistic though they may be. While he may mean for them to be taken with a grain of salt, they illustrate his belief in strong, independent, self-reliant Americans who uphold the law and find true justice by taking the law into their own hands when the legal system either won't take a hand or lets them down.

The series is Strongly Recommended.

A Fun Change of Pace

The Knights of Misery
The Gunsmith, Giant #12
by J.R. Roberts (Robert Randisi)
Jove Books

In an interview with Robert Randisi that I found on the Internet, he is quoted as saying that he realized early on you could write a good western around the sex scenes required in an "adult" western. For the most part, Randisi seems to be doing that in his Gunsmith series, which is currently at monthly issue #327.

I generally like Randisi as a writer. After reading this interview, and coupled with the generally positive talk among western readers about the series and other such westerns, I picked up a few. I noticed on the cover of all the monthly issues is printed "The All Action Western Series." This bode well, too, as did the plot of this year’s annual Giant Gunsmith, The Knights of Misery. It all sounded like a pulp plot in which Jimmy Christopher might have become embroiled. Fun stuff.

And it turned out to be fun, too, even though it appeared that Randisi approached the story a bit tongue in cheek.

Randisi is good at writing Gunsmith (of course he’s had nearly 300 of them on which to perfect this part of his craft). Several elements about this story and its titular main character I found superior to its sordid brethren.

The sex scenes appear to be (you’ll pardon the expression) organic to the plot. There’s a purpose to them; they grow out of the story and characters. Also, Clint Adams – our hero, the renowned shootist reverently nicknamed The Gunsmith – is not involved in every one of them. Yet when he is involved in one, each is different. Like in most of the titles in the series (I’m doing a bit of assuming here), he becomes intimate with a couple of women. In Knights the women are quite dissimilar, each having her own motivation for (and method of) taking Clint to bed.

Another quality I liked is that Clint Adams is not a superman like Smoke Jensen or even the Trailsman. Rigorous activity leaves him tired. He sometimes isn’t sure what to do. He asks for help from others – and not just with his button fly.

This is not to suggest that character development is on par with, say, William Faulkner’s work. But it gives the reader characters that are a touch more rounded than cardboard.

In Knights, Adams is asked by his off camera Secret Service friend James West (you get the reference, of course) to investigate the disappearance of a missing and presumed dead agent who was spying on a gang that has taken over a town in Virginia. The gang is made up of an off-shoot of the Freemasons that calls itself the Knights of Masonry, which is bastardized by the terrorized townspeople into Knights of Misery.

As expected, Adams ferrets out the evil doers and saves the town. There isn’t much more to say about the plot. It’s really not worth mentioning.

While I enjoyed the read, the book is a bit of fluff, and ultimately disappointing. More than 140 pages go by before we get any real action (sex scenes notwithstanding). This belies the proud cover statement on each issue of Gunsmith, "The All Action Western Series." The plot and writing reminded me of a 1950s TV Western (again, sex scenes notwithstanding) where the characters move from one simple set piece to another and talk. There are precious few outdoor scenes (and almost nothing that couldn’t be shot on a minimally dressed soundstage). No chases or barroom brawls or midnight ambushes. There is one truncated shootout at the very end, but it is clean enough for family viewing.

In fact, I got the sense that a lot of this tale was truncated; that Randisi spent so much time on his characters – trying to keep them close to being real and not have them jumping to wild conclusions that would have sped along the plot and made room for more action – that he ran out of the proscribed number of pages and had to rush the ending. We are left hanging on several key issues, not the least of which is the promised assassination attempt of Grover Cleveland, which never materializes and, after page 16 is never mentioned again. Clearly here we have the deepest connection to the old pulps, many of which left forgotten plot threads dangling to the consternation of faithful readers.

I cannot recommend this book, and yet I won’t pan it. It was a fun read. And sometimes, that’s what it is all about.

Gun-play Action and Mystery Satisfies

Guns at Q Cross
Ace Double M-118
by Merle Constiner

"He took a hand in a game whose only rule was fire first!"

As with all Ace doubles, Constiner’s Guns at Q Cross is a short, rapid-fire yarn that would be quite at home in Thrilling Westerns magazine if it hadn’t been a paperback original written in 1965.

According to material I found on the Internet, Constiner was happier with this length of story rather than novel length. In fact, he wrote very few full length novels. His modest pulp output tended to short stories and novellas. When the pulps died out he moved quickly and fairly easily into the original paperback market.

In Guns at Q Cross Stiles Gilmore is a man trying to mind his own business who is swept up into the middle of deadly schemes and cattle rustling. Gilmore arrives from Texas in the small town of Prentiss Creek, Idaho, to oversee the final sale of his horse herd, which is several days behind him on the trail, to a local rancher named Le Queux, the heavy-handed owner of the Q Cross. Gilmore is renowned for the quality of his horse stock, and the animals are much sought after.

As often happens in such stories, there is tension in the town that affects the newcomer. Gilmore tries to ignore it, but between having to dodge wild shots and trade punches with cowhands, he finds himself at the center of a pressure cooker getting ready to explode.

The valley is suffering badly from rustlers. The working theory is that the cow thieves are in cahoots with ranchers far to the north on the other side of a mountain range. It is also believed that the rustlers have an ally within the valley. This news concerns Gilmore, fearful that his herd might be stolen before they arrive and he can sell them. His concern increases when he stops receiving telegrams from his drive foreman.

Gilmore is befriended by a local wiseman who is outside the ruling circle, but is aware of all that is going on. The two men start to investigate, which stirs up more trouble. And then Le Queux does something that surprises both Gilmore and the reader: he offers to buy Gilmore’s horse herd sight unseen, even though it’s still on the trail and vulnerable to rustlers.

Reviews of Constiner’s work talk about his attention to detail and his ability to create unusual characters and situations. In Guns he effectively manages both. He also creates a fairly compelling mystery – another of his literary devices. In his lengthy discussion of Constiner on, Peter Ruber says that most of Constiner’s works "– whether detective yarns, historical adventures or Westerns – were essentially mysteries of one kind or another." His mystery in Guns plays out well to the end.

Ruber also discusses the motivation of Constiner’s heroes. "No matter [the occupation of] his heroes – whether saloon owner, rancher, cattleman or drifter – all have a sense of justice in a land often without law. They track the killers and badmen with relentless determination." This is also true of the character Gilmore. While he’s concerned with the fate of his own herd, his sense of justice is strong. He’s compelled to end rustling in the valley and see that badmen are sent to jail. No matter how many bullets he has to dodge, Gilmore relentlessly pursues the truth.

The reason Le Queux wants to buy Gilmore's vulnerable herd of horses, the fate of the rustlers, and the identity of the criminal spy are all revealed by the end of this short but exciting tale. As with many of these Ace Doubles the writing seems a bit condensed, yet Guns is easier to read than other such stories having seemingly been fitted with a master tailor's skill specifically to the format. Guns of Q Cross is a fast-moving, engaging story that entertains and is well worth the read.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Not A Great Outing for Judd

Bad Night at Dry Creek
by Cameron Judd
Leisure Books

After Bad Night was published, Cameron Judd did not have another book published for eight years. Odds are he got wrapped up in his life and didn’t find the time to write. But … maybe … just maybe, the reason for the delay was this book.

In short, it’s not very good.

There are many recognizable and comfortable western elements. A town under siege. A marshal standing alone. A gambler with a lust for revenge. A stalwart beauty supporting her man. An army of evil men.

Bad Night was never a book that would stand out, though. It is written unevenly. The quality of the writing is about the same throughout, but how and why and when the author shifts focus is quite often jarring and sometimes hard to follow. Judd can be ludicrously flowery at times. He’ll use 10 words when two will do. There is an awkward formality to many of the passages. I’m not sure if he’s trying to pepper the story with language from another time, or if he’s just trying to show off. In either case, it doesn’t work. Still other passages are just …. confusing:

Listening to a friend getting gunned down: “Arlo’s body jerked with each jolting roar of the pistol that cleared its throat out on the road not fifty feet away from him.”

Yet ... the story did have an older feel to it, like it was written in another time, and I usually like such stories. There is a soupçon of Louis L’Amour (if you'll pardon the use of a showy little word). Just a hint, a flavor in the way that the story’s reach is not overlong and the action is contained within a few characters.

Most of the story takes place within the town of Dry Creek, a hamlet nestled in the Colorado hills. Charley Hanna is the son of the former marshal, a beloved figure. Charley is well thought of, too. Very quickly, though, things turn bad as a gang of thugs is looking for money stolen from them by one of their own; a man who, dying, stumbles his way to Charley Hanna. Now everyone thinks Charley has the money or knows where it is. The townspeople turn on him out of greed, and the gang threatens to destroy the town if either the money or Charley are not handed over to them. It is this closed atmosphere and simplicity of plot that reminds me of L’Amour.

His action passages, too, are quite good. The story becomes clear during these times of action, and there is more logic in the story and plot at those times than in the quieter moments. Publishers Weekly is quoted on the book cover: “Judd is a fine action writer!” There’s no arguing with them.

But there are tremendous plot holes in the story. It always bothers me when a beloved figure is suddenly hated and distrusted. Especially when the person stirring up trouble is obviously held in low regard. People are fickle, it’s true. And when money is involved things can get very ugly. But the sudden turn of the townspeople away from Charley, and then their fairly quick return to him 100 pages later struck me as nothing more than a plot device employed simply to eat up real estate.

For those who like Cameron Judd, Bad Night is a book worth reading to compare to his other stories. I plan on reading his next book, published eight years after this one, titled Bitterroot, just to see if he gets better in intervening years.

Pure Pulp by Controversial Figure

Branded Outlaw
by L. Ron Hubbard
Galaxy Press

Saying the name L. Ron Hubbard garners a "galaxy" of reactions. Many spit his name over his Cybernetics, others laugh about it, still some ignore all of that controversy and just read his writings. This review will take a tunnel view of the man and look only at his pulp publishings.

A couple of years ago, Galaxy Press, the outfit that publishes all of Hubbards works - and only Hubbard's works - announced to bookstores that they intended to publish the author's entire pulp output. Their plan was to create undersized tradebooks that carried like-genre stories (a lead "novel" and one or two short stories, complete with original interior pen-and-ink artwork where available) and offer them monthly.

Galaxy pulled that plan, tweaked it, and last September published five volumes, one of which was the western Branded Outlaw from the October 1938 issue of Five Novels Monthly. The next batch of four are slated to come out in January 2009 and will include Six-Gun Caballero. If experience teaches anything, these may be as hard to find as the first batch.

In searching for a way to start this review, I couldn’t quite find the right words. Branded Outlaw is a pulp story in the purest sense.

We’ve seen the story before, the plot, characters, good guys, bad guys, even the horses. That’s when I thought of the word: Obvious.

Which really isn’t a bad thing. It is a pulp, after all. And what we want from those old magazine stories is action, plenty of gunplay, good guys and bad guys who act like it, and at least a hint of a plot. In short: fun.

Hubbard delivers, with great satisfaction.

Lee Weston is returning home at the written request of his father. Dad writes that he’s having rustler problems with range hog, Harvey Dodge. Lee finds his father dead and his boyhood home burned to the ground. He goes gunning for Dodge but things go badly. Shot-up, he stumbles on a beautiful woman in the wilderness.

Galaxy's four color PR and sales brochure continues the plot synopsis ... "As fate would have it, [this is] Dodge's beautiful yet headstrong daughter, Ellen, [who] finds Lee's unconscious body and secretly nurses him back to health. But when Lee insists on continuing his plan for revenge, he gets himself into a heap more trouble - false accusations, a near lynching at the hands of an angry mob and the scorn of the only girl he ever [loved]."

You see how this is playing out …. Anyway, all works out in the end after lots of horse-chasing, gunsmoke, and blood.

A quote on the book jacket from The Entertainer says these stories are “…written by a man who helped form the style itself.” This is pure hyperbole. Zane Grey, Max Brand, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Walt Coburn, Steve Fisher, and others … those guys defined the best of pulp westerns. Hubbard merely dabbled in it, like so many other authors. But he did it well enough to create a body of work that, if not classic, is at least fun to read.

And let's not dismiss that last statement as a backhanded compliment. So much in today's market is not fun to read. In too many books characters are unnecessarily dark and moody; plots are conviluted to the point of nonsense; backstory fills page upon page with useless information; and PC psychoanalisis has replaced the good old fist fight. A well written pulp story is worth the acid-free paper it's reprinted on. Hubbard is a welcome addition to this growing industry. With the vast majority of his work available to be reprinted, Western pulp fans have years of good reading to look forward to.

On a personal note, though, I'm a bit offended by Galaxy's inclusion of what amounts to a dictionary of American slang from the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these words are well known, even the western slang. And what isn't immediately known becomes clear in the story. This takes up a bunch of pages, as does the lengthy preview of upcoming volumes, which could be devoted to another story. At $10 a volume, I'd rather Galaxy include another yarn.

However, Galaxy has offered subscribers a neat "premium." They had a deck of playing cards with cover art from the western pulps in which Hubbard's stories appeared. It may still be available.

Format Hurts Worthy Hogan Effort

Track the Man Down
by Ray Hogan
Ace Double 75150

Not one of Hogan’s better efforts. A mainstay of classic Westerns, Hogan has been active in the field for 40-plus years. Maybe this was one of his early tales. Who knows? Seriously … does anybody know?

Nearly 40 years before Godfather Michael Corleone uttered the fateful words, “Every time I think I’m out, they keep pulling me back in,” (or thereabouts) Ben Dunn thinks similar thoughts. He’s hard man, a bounty hunter, who has gone after his share of toughs. Not everyone he tracked down made it back in his custody alive. Along the years Dunn made enemies. He’s out of that life now, making a quiet home for himself on a plugged hole of a ranch, eking out a living and keeping clear of trouble.

But, as everyone knows, trouble seems always to find a man like Ben Dunn. His neighbor is a wicked old cultus inaptly named Pope who’s after as much of the valley as he can grab. He’s dying, though, and leaves most of his heavy lifting to ranch foreman Jack Marr, the ruthless power behind the man. Marr uses his fists and his cronies to cause terror in the valley and make trouble for Dunn. Dunn, however, has just returned with a paper that proves disputed territory is actually his, not Pope’s.

On the way home he stumbles across a girl who is on her way to see Pope. She is Pope's daughter, Laura, and is completely unknown to him. She has proof of her parentage and wants to meet her father for the first time. She is totally guileless, an innocent girl being introduced to the wilds of the west. Dunn helps her out and when they are attacked on the way to see Pope he protects her.

All seems well when suddenly Dunn is accused of murder and the girl is on the run. Pope has been killed. Marr says that Dunn did it in cahoots with Laura to get the old man’s land. Marr has plenty of men and they make things hot for Dunn. Laura, on the run and hiding in the desert, finds her way back to Dunn.

Dunn’s home is burned, his stock run off. He’s shot at and chased. All the time he struggles to protect the girl. In the end he manages to convince a few of Pope’s old hands that the girl is the real deal and that Marr, greedy and ruthless, is actually behind the killing.

What starts off as a common, but well-told oater, seems to lose steam about three-quarters of the way through. Another 40,000-word quickie, the story bogs down and Hogan appears to be treading water for a while, using filler until the final scenes. At the end we have a fast shoot-out, but the real resolution is achieved with talking. Not really a hot way to end a western pulp yarn.

This story, like Savage Range, seems to be an attempt to jam old world pulp values (fast action, twisting plot, characterization “lite”) into the emerging new world western (thoughtful realism). It doesn’t work.

Much of the story is good. That’s when it’s just an old-fashioned western about a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and a young girl in need of help.