Monday, January 12, 2009

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.

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