Monday, January 12, 2009

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.

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