Western Fiction


  ARNOLD HANO – The Last Notch. Black Gat #12, Stark House Press, paperback, August 2017. First published as by Matthew Gant by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1958. Reprinted under that byline by Pyramid, #G482, paperback, 1960.

   It was Dan Stumpf who reviewed an earlier western by Arnold Hano on this blog, a book entitled Flint, originally published as by Gil Dodge but reprinted by Stark House as this one is under the author’s real name. In that review Dan also pointed out Hano’s more significant claim to fame, that of being the editor of Lion Books, the near legendary paperback publisher of such hard-boiled/noir authors in the 1950s as Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson and David Goodis.

   The Last Notch isn’t in the same league as the work any of those three, but there are very few whose books come anywhere close. What Notch does have, as you might expect, based only on this small bit of background information, is a strong noirish and fatalistic tone to it, a tale that starts slowly but picks up speed as it goes along.

   In essence The Last Notch is the story of Ben Slattery, perhaps the most notorious gunfighter in the territory, and in all likelihood the best, but in this tale he finds himself in a very strange position indeed. He agrees to do one last killing for hire, one that will pay him $5000, quite a sum of money back then, then hang up his guns and take the governor up on his offer of general amnesty to every gunman who will take him up on it, and many already have.

   If I were to pause for a minute and have think about it, by a nasty twist of fate, who do you think it is he’s been hired to kill? That’s the story in a nutshell, but wait, as they say. There’s more. I won’t go into detail — and in a book of 230 pages of small print, there is a lot of story I’m not able to tell you about in a review of less than 500 words — but as it so happens, Slattery has a nemesis, a shadowy figure who follows him closely throughout the book, a gunslinger known only as The Kid, young but with 19 notches already on the handle of his gun.

   There are plenty of other characters in the story as well, each described in quick but distinctive detail. There are a couple of young women too, both beautiful but one considerably more innocent than the other. It is Slattery’s present and past that make it impossible to think of a life and a future with her, or is it?

   The situation Slattery is in is admittedly an artificial construct, but is is one, I submit, that you can find yourself wrapped up in totally and completely, transported to a time and place that may exist only in the minds of authors with some talent. This is also one of the stories that you cannot predict which way it will go, which is precisely why the former statement is as true as it is.

REESE SULLIVAN – Deadly Like a .45. Ace Double M-140, paperback original; 1st printing, 1966. Published back-to-back with Last Stage to Gomorrah, by Barry Cord.

   The first story by Giles A Lutz (1910-1982) to have been published in the western pulp magazines may have been “Square in the Saddle,” which appeared in the July 1945 issue of Western Story Magazine. (Thanks to the online Western Fiction Index for this information.)

   From the mid-50s on, according to his entry on Wikipedia, Lutz not only wrote under his own name, but he also used Wade Everett, Alex Hawk, Hunter Ingram, Reese Sullivan, and Gene Thompson as bylines for the huge amount of western fiction he produced, mostly in the form of paperback novels.

   Even though it barely qualifies as a novel — Deadly Like a .45 is only 132 pages long, and there’s only one story line — it’s a good one, and in it, it’s up to Gard Hubach, deputy marshal for a small town in eastern Oregon, to be one of the few to stand up for what’s right.

   It’s this way. Breck Costigan, owner of the large ranch not far out of town figures he owns the whole town as well, and when a small farmer rustles one of his cattle, he thinks nothing of having his crew break him out of jail for a good old-fashioned lynching.

   The sheriff is in Costigan’s pocket. The only one who will stand with Gard is Dolph Emery, the town blacksmith. The only other important character is Emery’s daughter, Martha. Lutz writing as as Reese Sullivan manages to wring all of the drama out of this fairly standard set-up and make the reader wish for more.

   It’s also a dark, violent tale on more than one occasion, surprisingly so. Short, and while not a deep story, nonetheless an effective one.

PostScript:   The other half of this Ace Double, a story by Barry Cord, a pen name of Peter Germano, also a western pulp writer of some standing, is not nearly as successful. The length is the same, and both the plot and the number of characters are a lot more ambitious, but what it boils down to is this: A stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold disappears and a mine played out long ago suddenly starts producing high grade ore again. Much action ensues, but only in peripheral over-busy fashion.

BENNETT FOSTER – Gila City. Five Star, hardcover, 2003. Leisure, paperback; 1st printing, September 2004. A fix-up novel comprised of six stories reprinted from the western pulp magazines; details below.

   To call it a novel is, truthfully, an exaggeration. What this book actually consists of is a series of connected but individual stories from the pulps, each with its own definitive ending. What’s more than a bit strange about this is that the stories did not all come from the same magazine. Chronologically, and in the same orderas they appear in this book, they jumped from title to title, as follows:

        “Mail for Freedom Hill” Dime Western, November 1946.
        “Pilgrim for Boothill’s Glory Hole” Star Western, February 1947.
        “Dandy Bob’s Cold-Deck Cattle Deal” Dime Western, April 1947.
        “The Joke in Hell’s Backyard” Dime Western, July 1947.
        “Gila’s Four-Rod Justice” New Western, December 1947.
        “Duggan Trouble at Salada Wash” Dime Western, March 1948.

   All of the stories take place in the small western town of Gila City, Arizona. It’s within a day’s ride of Tucson, if that helps you place it geographically. Some of the same townspeople appear now and then, as needed, but the villains generally come and go within the time and space of a single story. (More often than not they don’t even survive to the end of the story.)

   The two primary protagonists, on the other hand, are the same throughout: First and foremost, Dandy Bob Roberts, local gambler and sharply dressed gent of sharper than average wit. He is also not averse to doing a little cattle rustling on the side. His natural-born tendency toward illicit ventures always seem to turn around on him, though, often making a small town hero of him. His stature in town seems somehow to keep rising, mostly because of the interference of Old Man Duggan, town drunk, stable hostler and teller of tall tales, and a constant pain in the behind to Dandy Bob.

   For example: When a dude from the East (or pilgrim, as he’s referred to here) happens to come to town looking for a mine to buy, Bob decides to salt the Widow Fennessy’s holdings. Old Man Duggan, having the same idea, unknowingly manages to switch Bob’s high grade ore back to a bag of useless rock. It all works out in the end, though. An inadvertent explosion in the mine exposes a new vein of gold, starting the Widow Fennessy into thinking a lot more favorably of Old Man Duggan as suitable marriage material.

   Which is more plot detail than I’d usually provide, but it should give you the general gist of these gently humorous stories, along with the not idly stated fact that they are gently humorous. Dandy Bob in one story actually becomes the owner of the saloon he’s been plying his trade in all these years, and in another tale Old Man Duggan somehow manages to get himself elected Justice of the Peace, but alas neither position or status is permanent.

   Totally ephemeral, in other words, but also a more than adequate way to spend one’s time while flying cross country on an airplane.

CLIFF FARRELL – Owlhoot Trail. Doubleday, hardcover, 1971. Signet T5207; 1st printing, October 1972. Zebra, paperback, 1990.

   I almost never read westerns for the history that’s behind them, but once in a while I slip up. This story takes place in the days just before the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, and surprisingly to me, this background helps juice up the whole book quite a bit.

   Vince Barrett is a con-man and a gambler, and he has no interest in land. What does attract his attention, though, is $80,000 in stolen Wells Fargo money, hidden somewhere on the other side of the starting line. With three vicious outlaw brothers determined to get their hands back on it, however, not to mention a large contingent of lawmen in the area as well, he decides to leave it lay — that is, until a girl and her father also get involved.

   Thus begins what promises to be a better than average western tale, but there are just too many secrets involved, and worse, the ending is a minor disappointment, at least in comparison to what came before.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

Bibliographic Notes:   Cliff Farrell (1899-1977) was the author of hundreds of stories for the pulp magazines, beginning in 1926. His first novel was Follow the New Grass, published in 1954, the first of nearly 30 before his death.

KYLE HOLLINGSHEAD – Ransome’s Move. Ace Double 38500, paperback original; 1st printing, 1971. Published back-to-back with Jemez Brand, by L. L. Foreman (reviewed here ).

   I know nothing about Kyle Hollingshead, the author of this Ace Double western novel, other than the fact that he wrote six other westerns, all for Ace (list below), and that itinerant gambler slash con-man Santee Ransome is in at least two more of them.

   He comes to Roaring Springs for a good reason, though. An old friend of his, Howard Giles, is in jail for killing the wife of the man who runs the town, Patrick Clancy. He’s been tried and convicted. The case against is open and shut, but Ransome does not believe it.

   As he soon discovers, though, there are far more threads to the story than this, with several dozen characters clogging up only 120 pages of story, most of them coming on stage only once or twice before disappearing again. Given major short shrift is the mystery of the sheriff’s missing son (his wife just happens to be a old flame of Ransome’s).

   Taking up much of the story is a charade being perpetrated on the teller of Clancy’s bank while Clancy is away. Word gets around that the old white-haired man who has come to town in a fancy private coach and large retinue is none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt. Tis not so. I wasn’t taken in, nor do I think I was meant to be.

   It’s all in fun, but I think it would have helped if the book has been half the size longer, just to fit all of the story into it.

      KYLE HOLLINGSHEAD – Bibliography:

Echo of a Texas Rifle (Ace Double, 1967)
The Franklin Raid / Ransome’s Debt (Ace Double, 1970)
Ransome’s Move (Ace Double, 1971)
Ransome’s Army (Ace,, 1974)
The Man on the Blood Bay (Ace, 1977)
Across the Border (ace, 1978)

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


MacKINLAY KANTOR – Wicked Water. Random House, hardcover, 1948. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, hardcover, 4-in-1 edition, 1949. Bantam #809, paperback, 1950; 2nd printing, #1238, 1954.

   Another tip-off from the redoubtable Bill Crider.

   Okay, for starters I assume everyone here has read Shane or seen the movie and you all remember Jack Palance as the saturnine gunman, Wilson. Well, Wicked Water is what Shane would have been if it were called Wilson.

   Buster Crowe makes his entrance in the classic fashion, riding into the tiny hamlet of Pearl City on a dusty afternoon, and he shows his nature by beating a kid in the first few pages, then cowing the boy’s dad with a display of deadly marksmanship. In short order he’s hired by the local big ranchers to scare away the “nesters” and the murders start.

   Kantor takes a simple tale, does it in prose that’s expressive but never showy, and rings in some colorful characters to move it along, notably Mattie MacLaird, a saloon-singer-turned-schoolmarm, and Marshal “Speedy” Rochelle, a laid-back lawman who ambles in at the half-way point to set things to rights — another neat reversal on Shane.

   Mostly though this is about Buster Crow, the hired killer, and his murderous progress through the environs of Pearl City, and it’s here where Kantor really shines, fleshing out the character without letting up on the pace, and he lets the interaction among the characters bring things to a conclusion that actually got me a little misty.

   Definitely one for fans of Westerns or just plain good writing.

L. L. FOREMAN – Jemez Brand. Ace Double 38500, paperback original, 1971. A “fix-up” novel comprised of two novellas from Western Story Magazine, the first being “Jemez Brand” from the 10 December 1941 issue, the second “Six-Gun Sermon,” from 05 September 1942. Published back-to-back with Ransome’s Move, by Kyle Hollingshead.

   The hero of this pair of western tales is Preacher Devlin, who appeared in several dozen pulp magazine stories in the 30s and 40s, beginning with Western Aces in December 1934 before moving over to Western Story in 1939. The last of his adventures appeared in the issue for June 1949.

   Something I do not know is whether this is the only appearance in book form of Preacher Devlin or not. He’s basically an outlaw, with posses invariably on his trail. I do not believe that he ever was a minister of any denomination, but he may have been at one time. As the book begins, he is described as wearing a long black coat with a black hat with flat brim and crown. He is also very good with his guns, with the reputation that goes along with such a man in the Old West. He is not averse to coming out ahead in monetary fashion as he travels, but only if he has earned it.

   For example, when he comes across a dead man, murdered in some strange fashion at the beginning of the first story, with money still in the man’s pockets, he does not take it. The body is only the beginning of a strange affair that involves a hunt for a city of gold, complete with a tribe of local Indians who may be descendants from the Ucaylis originally from Peru — or even Lost Atlantis.

   Add in a young ethnologist searching for traces of his missing father, a young girl with the face of a cat — a mask made of gold — and a band of vicious mercenaries led by an ex-Confederate colonel named Trist. It’s quite a wild story, but unfortunately — and not surprisingly — after a great start, it tails off in rather perfunctory fashion, at least in comparison to the earlier part of the tale.

   Even better is Part II of this cobbled-up novel, and thanks to Walker Martin for helping me identify this second tale, after narrowing the possibilities down by the use of Phil Stephenson-Payne’s online Western Fiction Index.

   Unlike the story in Part I, this one starts out in bang and gets even better as it goes along. It begins with a traveling minister and his daughter finding Devlin in sorry straits after being bushwhacked and left for dead. They then bring him into a town most inappropriately called Rainbow, where all hell breaks loose. It seems that the rough and very wild gold-mining town is under the control of outlaws, in spite of the best effort of the local lawman. Even more, Devlin has a price on his head, and not only is a posse after him, but hordes of bounty hunters from all over the West.

   One highlight of this second story is when Reverend Topcliff tries to start up a church service in Rainbow, not realizing that the bad element in the area are only joshing him along in anticipation of the fun they are going to have with him. It is up to Preacher Devlin to end the chaos that follows, as he makes good use of not only a sermon but both of his six-guns.

   A very enjoyable pair of stories. I think more of Preacher Devlin’s western tales should be in print. I hope someone is listening.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


ERNEST HAYCOX – Alder Gulch. Little Brown, hardcover, 1941. Paperback reprints include: Dell #317, mapback edition, 1949; Bantam A2287, 1961; Paperback Library, 1971; Pinnacle, 1992.

   A superior Western by a master of the form, Alder Gulch starts off in Jack London territory with Jeff Pierce, shanghaied by a brutal sea captain, jumping ship in Portland — or trying to. The captain pulls a gun, Pierce clubs him down and ends up wet and alone, fleeing for his life in a strange city… and wanted for murder.

   In the best pulp tradition, he’s rescued by a beautiful woman of mystery, and they end up making a difficult trek to Virginia City, Montana, then on to Alder Gulch, where Pierce intends to try his luck prospecting.

   About this time I wasn’t expecting much, but Haycox quickly abandons the Pulp traditions (most of them anyway) and sets about writing a genuine story, filled with real-seeming characters, tense situations, lots of action and even a moral dilemma or two.

   Haycox fashions a story that pits the hard-toiling miners of Alder Gulch against the well-entrenched outlaw bands of the area, led by Sheriff Henry Plummer (A real-life character of some controversy. And I should add here that although our hero is named Pierce and he’s been shanghaied, he bears no relation to the Shanghai Pierce of Texas fame.)

   A lot of this plot found its way (unaccredited) into Borden Chase’s screenplay for The Far Country (1954) from the outlaws’ habit of picking off miners trying to leave with their profits to the central character who’d rather go it alone than stand up for law and order with the community. And shame on Chase anyway for stealing so shamelessly. But Haycox blends the tale neatly with grungy details of a miner’s life and the progress-or-decline of characters who grow and change as we watch them, wrapping things up with a satisfying conclusion.

   Now I’m going to pick a fight with you. There’s a scene in Alder Gulch where the hero, having finally joined the vigilantes, finds his good friend mixed up with the outlaws and facing the wrong end of a rope. This is not a new thing in westerns; it goes back at least as far as Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and there may even be ancient Icelandic sagas about former pardners turned owlhoots. It has appeared in a number of books since then (including Lonesome Dove) and it also shows up in A. B. Guthrie’s These Thosand Hills.

   Most of you read my review of Hills and said you never read Guthrie and didn’t think he was worth the trouble, but I’m here to tell you Guthrie took this meme and handled it with originality, tension, and a sure feel for the moral and emotional complexity of the thing. Haycox was good, but Guthrie was brilliant, and I’ll fight any man in the room (at a safe distance, of course) who will read the book and say different.

   And meanwhile, don’t forget Haycox’s Alder Gulch; it’s a winner.

MERLE CONSTINER – Guns at Q Cross. Ace Double M-118, paperback original; 1st printing, 1965. Published back-to-back with The Toughest Town in the Territory, by Tom West. Reprinted as Ace Double 81861, the cover of which is the one shown.

   Back in the 1940s, Merle Constiner was primarily known for the detective stories he wrote for Black Mask, Dime Detective and several other top notch pulp magazines of the day. He did write one detective novel, Hearse of a Different Color (Phoenix, 1952), but by 1957 he seems to have writing only western novels, many if not all of them for Ace in the “double” format, still very much collectible today.

   The hero of Guns at Q Cross is a hard-boiled rancher from Texas named Stiles Gilmore, who has preceded a herd of his cattle to a ranch in southern Idaho, where he has a buyer waiting for him. What he doesn’t expect is that on the same day that he arrives, an owlhoot who is lying in wait for him shoots to kill.

   Stiles is caught without a gun, so he’s lucky the fellow misses. But when Stiles soon sees the man again, he is ready. He pulls out his gun and kills him! The reason this comes as a surprise (note the exclamation point) is that even though the wild west was supposed to wild and woolly, this certainly seems woollier than most works of western fiction.

   It seems that there is a severe amount of rustling going on in the territory, and while Stiles is worried that his herd is at risk, it is not so. It’s just that Stiles’s presence is a catalyst for stirring up things involving the dirty work the gang is really up to.

   There is a bit of detective work that goes on in the rest of this very short novel (only 109 pages), as Stiles tries to figure out just what it is that he’s walked into, and who’s behind it, but unfortunately while Constiner brings his characters to life in fine fashion, the story itself is just not all that interesting.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


LES SAVAGE, JR. – Return to Warbow. Dell First Edition #65, paperback original; 1st printing, 1955.

RETURN TO WARBOW . Columbia, 1958. Philip Carey, Catherine McLeod, Andrew Duggan, William Leslie, Robert Wilke, James Griffith and Jay Silverheels. Written by Les Savage Jr from his novel. Directed by Ray Nazzaro.

   I was mildly impressed by Les Savage’s novel for the efforts it took to be a bit different; the film he wrote from it impressed me too, but for all the wrong reasons.

   To start with the novel — well actually, before the novel starts, a small-time rancher named Elliot Hollister needed money for his sick wife, but he was already deep in debt and the only friends he had in the town of Warbow were the drifters and low-lifes he met in saloons where he drank to drown his troubles.

   One of these reprobates roped him in on a stagecoach heist, but a third party horned in, killed Elliot’s partner and a popular local businessman and left Elliot holding the bag — but not the loot. So as the story starts, Elliot has served his time and returns to Warbow, where he is universally reviled and suspected of having stashed the haul, and he means to figure out who the killer really was.

   Got all that? Well pay it no mind, because the central character here is Clay Hollister, Elliot’s adult son who has grown up, got out from under the onus of his father, built up the ranch, and bids fair to marry the daughter of the man his daddy is thought to have killed. When his father hits town Clay feels compelled to take him in and the two begin an uneasy relationship punctuated by violent encounters with the locals who still hate Elliot for that killing he never done, plus those who think he can lead them to a fortune in stolen gold, and the mysterious third man, who simply wants him silenced in the surest way possible.

   Savage gives the thing a bit of emotional complexity, particularly as some of Elliot’s persecutors see the results of their work and waver a bit, and he sets the tale in the nasty midst of a Montana blizzard, lending a welcome edge of realism. None of this makes Warbow a great novel, but it does lift it a bit out of the ordinary.

   You can imagine my surprise then, when I watched the film version, also written by Les Savage Jr., and found he had leeched out just about everything that made the book worthwhile.

   The film eschews the wintry setting of the book in favor of that perpetual sunny summertime of just about every other Western ever made. And in this version there’s no Elliot; Clay Hollister (Phil Carey) is an unrepentant robber who breaks from a chain gang with a couple of other bad guys and returns to his home town to recover the loot he left with his weakling brother (a fine performance from James Griffith).

   There are the usual complications: Hollister’s new partners want more than their share of the loot (a wrinkle that recalls Big House U.S.A., reviewed here not long ago) his ex-girlfriend has married upstanding Andre Duggan, and they are raising his son as their own; there’s a posse on his trail; and that brother of his is awfully evasive about where he hid the dough.

   Which is pretty much where things just stop and pot around for awhile. Everyone chases everyone else around the Columbia Western Town set and the familiar environs of Simi Valley. We get a few fights, a bit of shooting, and no real sense that anything’s going anyplace very much. Ray Nazarro was always a competent director, but that’s all he was, and he never enlivens the rather stale proceedings.

   As for the script, well I have never seen an author trash his own work so completely, and I just hope Savage got well paid for it.

Next Page »