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 soup├žon 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.

Bloodless Short Novel Anemic

Savage Range
by Lee E. Wells
Ace Double 75150

Although the cover cries out “Massacre was his birthright,” Savage Range is relatively bloodless. In fact, an Indian uprising is prevented. In real life the Sioux uprising would happen, but Wells finds a way to avoid it, at least for the time being.

Former army lieutenant Dan Mitchell is recruited by his commanding officer to help rout out corruption in the Indian Agency system. It appears that graft is running rampant in Broken Bow and Fort Adams and that the Indian agent and fort sutler are cheating the Indians on the reservation. They’ve also taken over all commerce in town, violently putting down all efforts to set up competing stores. One of those competing stores belonged to Mitchell’s sister and brother-in-law. They were murdered in an attack made to look like a Sioux raiding party.

Working under cover, Mitchell heads into town, gains work with the criminals, and begins ferreting out the illegal activities. He meets the regional head of the syndicate, Millard Fleming, and his not-so-pure lady friend, Janey Lang. He puts down a few toughs, gets in tight with the crooked sutler, and starts tearing the syndicate apart from the inside. He eventually gets them on the run. Meantime Mitchell works with Stone Nose, a Sioux leader, to head off the uprising.

Savage Range whips through its 40,000 words, like an old pulp story. And while I’ve said that western stories should be short and pack a punch (and leave out all the useless and aimless backstories), this particular tale could have used a little more fleshing out. It is still, though, a pretty good yarn and it carries you along quickly.

What is missing are some of the details in characterization and character relationships. Plot, like in the old pulps, is king, and this is clear and driving. But Wells doesn’t really build much on Mitchell’s relationship with his sister and brother-in-law – their death being the seminal motivation for Mitchell taking on the corrupt Indian agency system should have power. There is a moment when he runs up against the man who killed his sister. Mitchell kills the man, then moves on. There is no emotional impact to the scene, and it does not color the rest of the story.

There is an attempt to graft romance onto this yarn. There are a couple of women in the tale: one a good bad girl, the other just a good girl. In other stories there might have been suspense about which woman would end up with Mitchell. Here, there is no doubt; Mitchell wants nothing to do with either of them. But the author has kept a secret from us readers. He never let on that Mitchell wanted the good girl until he suddenly asks her to marry him. She seems to have been in on this secret affair, because she’s really not surprised by Mitchell’s declaration.

This is what keeps Savage Range from rising above its dashed-off origins. If the author had kept the tale to its core (and more probably if the editor hadn’t insisted on shoehorning a romance into the plot, despite the story’s lack of depth and development) it would have been a much better read.

Easy to Fall Into This Trap

A Trap for Sam Dodge
by Harry Whittington
Ace Double F-103

Harry Whittington may be better known today as a suspense and crime writer, but he was the author of many westerns, too. In fact, his first novel was a western, published in 1946. Suspense and drama, though, seem to inform the western in this review, A Trap for Sam Dodge, one side of an Ace double combined with Lee Floren’s High Thunder, both from 1961.

Dodge is a tightly-written potboiler in which Whittington seems to have mislaid most of his pronouns. This gives the story a clipped sound that’s almost a parody of the noir style of fiction written by Hammett and Chandler, two writers to whose dark throne French critics insist Whittington is the natural heir.

We get a little more than half-way into the story before we understand just what trap has been set for Dodge. It turns out he set it himself, rather stupidly, in a vain attempt to draw out the killer of his friend and rival for the affections of Sarah, an unworthy woman.

Dodge had been a marshal in a small western town. A bit of a wild place it had been and Sam had had to get tough. Lot of people liked him, though, because he was honest and straight. He had a great friend, too, the sheriff, named Miles. The two vied for the affections of Sarah and when Sam lost out he left town in a huff to start up a small ranch.

Now Miles is dead, murdered in the dark of night by someone who could outdraw him. No mean feat, that. When Sam comes back for the funeral, no one is glad to see him. He gets the cold stare and lots of veiled warnings to leave town. He’s of a mind to go but the marshal in him gets the best of his common sense. He starts asking questions.

Along the way we discover that Sam and Miles were still friends, even though they hadn’t seen each other much over the past couple of years. The town thinks Sam left because of losing Sarah to Miles. That isn’t so. Miles, that pillar of the community and stalwart of the little guy, was on the take. He was in deep. He had ridden out to Sam only days before he died, wanting to be shed of the graft and corruption but needing Sam to help him. Sam had refused. The town in his estimation was lost.

When Sam doesn’t leave town after the funeral, he is beaten. Later he puts on a show of drinking and of being drunk. He brags about the speed of his gun and that he could have taken down Miles, and maybe even did. This lands him in a jackpot as, instead of drawing out the killer, he angers the town and they put him on trial. While he beats the wrap he still has to uncover the real killer and the true power behind the greedy men in town. A display of quick guns ends things, but no one is happy with the outcome.

This story appears to be an original, and no more than about 40,000 words. It suffers in the telling because of it. Whittington’s disuse of pronouns is more hacking than trimming. Often, the meaning of his sentences are unclear. Part of this, no doubt, can be blamed on the required length, the swiftness of publication, and by editor mistakes. Regardless of who's to blame, it takes from the book’s enjoyment.

The shortness of the story doesn’t allow Whittington to set up much in the way of subplots, love interest, or the development of suspects. He barrels through letting raw emotion and mood and the overriding question of why Miles was killed carry the story. This is something that Whittington did exceedingly well, and he doesn’t disappoint here. There is a scene where Sam is put on trial, though, that drags the story a bit. When this is over, though, the novel races to its inevitable and largely satisfactory conclusion.

This Power Valley a Puff of Smoke

Powder Valley Pay-Off
by Peter Field
Bantam Books No. 104

Getting an early paperback in very good condition is a rare treat. Published in 1947, Powder Valley Pay-Off is a reprint from its 1941 publication (presumably in hardcover) by William Morrow and Company. The lineage of the “Peter Field” books is difficult to navigate. Luckily it’s been done by pulp aficionado Al Tonik, a frequent contributor to the pulp western Yahoo newsgroup. He very kindly offered information on this book and passed along a bibliography of Powder Valley/Peter Field books.

He writes: “According to my records all the Powder Valley stories appeared in hard cover first [for $2]. Then some were reprinted in Columbia pulps about a year [after hardcover publication]. Pulps as Blue Ribbon Western, Western Action, Real Western, Double Action Western, and Complete Cowboy. Powder Valley Pay-Off was published by Morrow in 1941 and in Blue Ribbon Western in the April 1942 issue.”

The reviewd copy is the 104th book published by Bantam, in July 1947, for the whopping cost of 25¢. It was written by one of the series' many writers, Davis Dresser, known for his Brett Halliday mystery series which he farmed out fairly often to yet other writers.

Passing along a bit of personal knowledge, Al wrote: “Nelson Nye told me that Davis Dresser came to him and begged him to take the Powder Valley series from him. Nye refused.”

While Al doesn’t elaborate, it’s hard to imagine Dresser said this in 1941. Pay-Off was his second Peter Field book and the second Powder Valley story. He would write at least 13 more before handing off the series to interim writer Robert J. Hogan, of G-8 and His Battle Aces fame, and Powder Valley powerhouse Lucien W. Emerson, who wrote more than half of the tales for a total of 44 novels.

Reading Pay-Off does not put one in mind of Dresser, though. His style is nothing like the terse, hard driving story-telling he used in the best of the Brett Halliday novels. It’s a strange combination of B-movie oater dialog and the melodramatic prose of Zane Grey or B. M. Bower. There’s a lot of “Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll be (gulp) just fine until you get back.” You can just see the kid biting the back of his tiny clenched hand.

Powder Valley Pay-Off tells the story of a settled-down Pat Stevens wrestling with the need to put himself in danger in order to save his two saddle pards, Sam Sloan and One-Eyed Ezra. The duo have gotten themselves into trouble; they've been accused of murder and are on the run. Of course it’s a set-up, but Pat has to dodge bullets, pass himself off as a cattle inspector, and track down killers before his friends can ride free once more.

Except for the overblown prose and the goofy dialog, this isn’t a bad story. But it seems like a transitional tale, something that’s making its way away from the 1910s and into the 1940s. Dresser certainly had had enough experience writing before this novel, and had in fact written half a dozen westerns, including a few Rio Kid stories (although these may not have been the better known pulp series). So one is left to assume he chose this style, perhaps to differentiate from Mike Shayne, which was just taking off. Still, it’s a quick read and fun, if you don’t examine it too closely.