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.