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.

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