Western Fiction

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

LOUIS L’AMOUR – Reilly’s Luck. Bantam, paperback original, 1971. Reprinted many times.

   I have a theory that the reason so few of Louis L’Amour’s novels have done well on screen is that his quality as a writer doesn’t lie in story and character alone, but in his voice and small details that are almost impossible to translate to the screen. The same, by my estimation, is true of John D. MacDonald. Both men have had successful screen translations, but most often their work seems to lose something when it moves to film.

   Reilly’s Luck is a good example of the qualities that illustrate my point: it is a strong well written western on classical lines with a story worthy of Greek myth, and yet as cinematic as it would seem I can’t really see it working on screen.

   Valentine Darrant’s mother Myra abandons him in a snowstorm to the mercies of Will Reilly, a young gambler who like most L’Amour heroes is a little too good with a gun. Reilly is angered at first, but soon warms to the child and takes him under his wing as father and mentor.

   “Always give yourself an edge, boy. You may never need it, but it saves a lot of worry. Learn to depend on yourself, and if you expect nothing from anyone you will never be disappointed.”

   With Reilly, Val kicks around the West from one trail town to another, from San Francisco to the capitals of Europe, gambling, working, and adventuring, but always haunted by why he was abandoned, and an unvoiced threat from his past. It is not until Val reaches maturity that things come to a head and he finds cold blooded gunman Henry Sonnenberg paid to kill him — by his own mother with a Russian nobleman from his European adventures involved.

   L’Amour liked his themes from classical literature and he certainly works them here. Will Reilly is a sort of Charon ushering Val to manhood, and you can certainly see Myra as Medea murdering her own children when one interferes with her ambition. Val himself could be Jason or Theseus easily. Myra Fossett, Val’s mother, is certainly the most unusual woman in a L’Amour novel that I have encountered.

   Obviously this sounds as if it would be a natural on screen. But the fact is the qualities that make a good L’Amour novel, the complexities and the details, just don’t transfer to the screen anymore than the savage commentary on the world of a MacDonald novel do. Like MacDonald, who he does not otherwise resemble, L’Amour’s plots aren’t really the point. You read them to be in their world, to experience them and not merely the story they tell.

   The experience of reading L’Amour doesn’t translate to the screen as well as an Elmore Leonard or Luke Short western for instance. Here, and in many L’Amour works, the plot meanders a bit, a quality that is admirable in a novel but less so in a movie. Most of Reilly’s Luck would have ended up on the cutting room floor to the detriment of the novel and disappointment of L’Amour’s readers.

   This one is one of my favorite L’Amour novels, penned later in his career and more ambitious than earlier titles. It’s a fairly big book, close to 300 pages, with a great many characters and a fairly busy plot. I’m sure many L’Amour fans dislike it for that reason, but for whatever reason I found Val Darrant’s quest an entertaining read, and Will Reilly a memorable companion for Val and for myself.


MARVIN H. ALBERT – The Law and Jake Wade. Gold Medal #553, paperback original, 1956; Gold Medal #756, 2nd printing, movie tie-in edition, 1958.

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by William Bowers, based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert. Director: John Sturges.

   I’ve never been a big fan of Marvin H. Albert, but this ain’t bad. Like all the best Gold Medal originals, it starts with a crackle of mysterious action as Marshal Jake Wade travels to a nearby town to break Ben Swift, a condemned killer, out of jail. The jailbreak is handled with the terse violence one expects in a Gold Medal, and we soon learn that Marshal Wade himself used to ride what they call The Outlaw Trail, and he’s repaying Swift back for saving his life back in those days. Been me, I’d a let him hang, but that wouldn’t have made much of a book, I guess.

   It seems Wade hates and fears Swift, who has been trying to find him for more than a year — the result of a misunderstanding over the loot from their last job together, which was last seen in Jake’s possession. Jake buried the loot in a fit of remorse, and has built himself a decent life, as they say in westerns, complete with a career as an upright lawman and a fetching fiancée named Lorna, but none of this makes a damn to Ben, and soon we’re off on a long, punishing ride to recover the loot, with Jake and his bride-to-be the unwilling captives of Ben and his henchmen.

   The ensuing action is pretty gripping, what with raiding Comanches, blizzards, rugged mountains, and the ever-present tension as Jake works to maneuver his captors to destruction. But the real emphasis is on the relationships between the characters, as it quickly becomes apparent that our hero won’t get away from these owlhoots until he understands them.

   And likewise, he won’t be able to rescue Lorna until she understands him. A nice touch this, and it lifts the story a bit out of the ordinary — as does the climax, when Jake realizes he can’t really escape at all, and calmly waits for his fate to overtake him.

   Albert evokes some fine tension by concentrating on the small stuff: the effects of having one’s wrists tied for days on end, the constant attention to keep Jake and Lorna secured and apart, and the careful cat-and-mouse maneuverings of Jake and his captors. But this is primarily a book about the characters, and he does an exemplary job of balancing thought, feeling and action…. plenty of action.

   When they filmed this in 1958, MGM and producer William Hawks did well by it: they got director John Sturges, back when he was lean & fast, Robert Surtees to photograph it, and William Bowers to fashion the script. Bowers specialized in comedy-westerns, including Alias Jesse James and The Sheepman, and he even injected some humor into Henry King’s fatalistic The Gunfighter. Here, he imparts a laconic lilt to the proceedings that makes the action scenes somehow more intense and brutal by way of contrast.

   The blizzard is omitted, probably for reasons for reasons of economy and expeditious film-making, but they don’t stint on the wide-open scenery and they even provide a highly cinematic ghost town for the Comanche fight, and the final showdown—possibly borrowed from Yellow Sky, but no less exciting for that. And the acting….

   The acting is what academics call top-notch, with the performers slipping easily into their parts. Robert Taylor plays the marshal Randolph-Scott-style: tight-lipped and square-jawed, the perfect foil for Richard Widmark’s talkative and brutal bad guy. Patricia Owens (who starred in The Fly that same year) has little to do as the fiancée, but she does it capably. And Widmark’s gang includes Henry Silva, Robert Middleton and DeForest Kelly, who had a nice line in smiling cowboy bad-guys in those pre-Star Trek days.

   The only thing that puzzles me is why they changed so many names: Ben Swift becomes “Clint Hollister;” Lorna becomes “Peggy” and Henry Silva’s character, named “Henry” in the book, is now “Rennie.” Most puzzling of all, a major character named “Otero” in Albert’s novel is listed as “Ortero” in the credits.

   I guess it’s just one of those unsolved mysteries of The Cinema. Don’t let it spoil the movie.

Editorial Comment:   It wasn’t planned; it’s only one of those great cosmic mysteries of the universe called a coincidence. But Jonathan reviewed this same film on this blog exactly one year ago today.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

ERIC ALLEN – Hangtree Country. Pyramid G-329, paperback original, 1958; 2nd printing, March 1965.

   The first work of a prolific western author, but I’m afraid Hangtree Country will stay in my mind primarily because of a dreadful gaffe by the publisher.

   Author Eric Allen hangs his plot on a familiar peg, then handles it with some distinction. As the story opens, Buck Caldeen rides into town and surrenders himself to the local lawman. It seems he just killed a local nasty, with some justification perhaps, but this is the outskirts of Fort Smith Arkansas, and he can expect little in the way of empathy from Judge Parker.

   Flashback to a year earlier, and Buck Caldeen is riding into town after five years of ramblin’ — the result, it seems, of a romance gone bad. Buck no sooner gets back to his old stomping grounds than he learns that his brother Rube is in Judge Parker’s jail for shooting a man in the back. Moreover, Rube refuses to say anything about the killing, and it looks like he will soon end his days at the end of a rope.

   Unless of course Buck can find out the reason behind it all.

   What follows is nothing in the way of the great western writers like A.B. Guthrie or Milton Lott, but it is a bit out of the ordinary. No gunfights, bushwhackings or barroom dust-ups, just a feel of quiet tension and emotional growth as Buck scours the countryside looking for clues, witnesses and what-have-you, finds himself relating to those around him, understanding why his old romance turned so bad, and finally learning what made his fine and upstanding brother shoot a man in the back — and why he must die for it.

   These are the central themes of Hangtree Country: Why did Rube do it? And How can Buck discover the reason? And it coulda been a contender, as they say. Unfortunately, on the very first page of Pyramid’s first edition, the blurb page, right inside the cover, we read:


   “Maybe we got too much Cherokee blood—but we feel a very special way about our women. I had to kill Murch after what he did to Sally — make sure he couldn’t talk,” Rube went on. “He ran and I put every slug I had into his back.”

   “If anybody knows why I shot Murch, you’re going to have to kill him, Buck — kill for the pride of the Caldeens.

   “I’ve killed for it — that’s why they’re hanging me in the morning.”

   And there you have it. Everything the hero is trying to learn for more than a hundred pages, everything the reader should be turning pages to find out, all laid out for you before the story even starts. Well crap.

   I’ve heard stories before of publishers doing dirt to their authors, but this one takes its own unique place. And I’m afraid it spoiled what might have been a pretty good read.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

RICHARD MATHESON – The Gun Fight. M. Evans, hardcover, April 1993. Forge, paperback, November 2009.

   It’s a nail-biter.

   A lean, taut tale of three days in a small Texas town when a rumor gets out of control and a deadly ex-lawman finds himself called out to kill an impulsive youngster in “an affair of honor” based on nothing but gossip.

   Now I have to say here that I don’t know much about Gossip because I never engage in it; when I hear a second-hand story that reflects discredit on someone (usually Steve) I just discuss it with ten or twelve people and see what they think. But I have to say that Richard Matheson paints a vivid word-picture of a false report taking on a life of its own as it grows and feeds on itself and human nature.

   Along the way he also generates a whole lot of tension as we see the various characters move away from tragedy and lurch back toward it again, the effect enriched by Matheson’s skill at sketching out characters quickly, vividly and believably. There’s not a whole lot of action here, but I think you’ll find The Gun Fight impossible to put down.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

PAUL DURST – Die, Damn You! Lion #75, paperback original, 1952.

   I just can’t resist a book with a title like Die, Damn You!, so I’d have bought this in any event, but to my pleasant surprise. it proved to be well worth reading, a noirish, hard-boiled Western, with a moody, idiosyncratic Loner spurred on by vengeance, running into gangsters, goons, femmes fatales, false faces, double-crosses, some very stylish violence (At one point a man sets fire to his own bed to get a rattlesnake off his chest! and a complex storyline the results in lines like:

   “One thing you boys forgot,” Clint said as calmly as he could, “Those papers that were in that safe. I left them with instructions to be opened in case anything happened to me…. Writing all that down was a good way to keep Ring from crossing you up. But when this other business started they could do you as much harm as they could him…. How else could I know all I just told you? And how do you think Miller was so sure of where he stood with Cober? He stole the papers out of Sadie McGowan’s safe. When we caught up with him, his widow gave us the papers. Ring must’ve figured we’d get the papers from Miller. That’s why he sent Lobo….”

   The author even adds a Mask of Dimitrios touch by keeping the bad guy central to the plot but off-stage till the very end. I have no idea who author Paul Durst is — or was — but he writes a lightly enjoyable, fast-moving mystery/western that’s easy to take.


Some Bibliographic Notes [Steve]: One online bookseller says: “Paul Durst is the author of thirty-one books under his own name and various pseudonyms.”

   From Crime Fiction IV, the following:

DURST, PAUL (1921-1990); see pseudonyms Peter Bannon & John Chelton.
Backlash (Cassell, 1967, hc) [Michael Carmichael; U.S.]
Badge of Infamy (Cassell, 1968, hc) [Michael Carmichael; Israel]
Die, Damn You! (Lion, 1952, pb) [Texas; Past] Mills, 1955.
The Florentine Table (Scribner, 1980, hc) [London]
Paradiso County (Hale, 1986, hc)

BANNON, PETER; pseudonym of Paul Durst, (1921-1990)
If I Should Die (Jenkins, 1958, hc)
They Want Me Dead (Jenkins, 1958, hc) [Missouri]
Whisper Murder Softly (Jenkins, 1963, hc) [Missouri]

CHELTON, JOHN; pseudonym of Paul Durst, (1921-1990)
My Deadly Angel (Gold Medal #524, 1955, pb) [Florida]

   From bookfinder.com, the following appear to be westerns under his own name:

Ambush at North Platte (John Long, 1957)
Bloody River (Lion, 1953)
Dead Man’s Range (Robert Hale, 2009; previous printing?)
Gun Doctor (Avalon, 1959)
Johnny Nation (Mills & Boon Diamond W Western, 1960)
Kansas Guns (Avalon, 1958)
Kid from Canadian [??] (World’s Work, 1956)
Prairie Reckoning (Gold Medal #619, 1956)

   Plus: A Roomful of Shadows, Dobson, 1975. “… his childhood autobiography – from four to twelve – in the American Middle West during the 1920s and ’30s. This era comes alive through the eyes of a small boy who is ‘half-orphan’, introspective, and full of wonder at the unpredictability of life.”

MAX BRAND – The Trail to San Triste. Warner Books; 1st paperback edition, February 1985. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1927. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1983. First serialized in six parts (8 March through 12 April 1924) in Western Story Magazine as “Four without Fear,” as by John Frederick.

   As it so happened I was halfway through this book when the a brief discussion came up in the comments following Dan Stumpf’s review of Milton Lott’s Backtrack; to wit: there is a big difference between Westerns in the traditional and romantic sense and novels about the West.

   You can put Max Brand firmly in the first category, and The Trail to San Triste is a fine example. It’s the story of a young dashing cowboy, nearly a legendary outlaw, who is recruited to go into Mexico and pose as the missing son of the now deceased beloved patron of San Triste. Object: a fortune in gold, silver and rare gems.

   Of course there are complications. First John Jones must convince the townspeople that he is the true heir, then the servants of the family, still living, contend with man (a cousin) running the estate now but not loved, and (without giving too much away) is he, by chance, the real heir and does not know it, or is the real heir still alive? And of course, there is a girl. The girl. The girl of John Jones’ dreams.

   All told with a flair for the romantic, with plenty of gallantry, bravery, and a sense of justice and what’s right in the world and what makes life worth living. Cowboys and Mexican peasants had a tough life, but you wouldn’t know it from reading this book. Even the deaths that occur toward the end of the book have some meaning, redemption being a solid part of it.

   A world such as this never existed, but I enjoyed every minute that I spent visiting it.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

MILTON LOTT – Backtrack. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover,, 1965. Berkley F1472, paperback, 1967.

   I mentioned Milton Lott before in these pages (he wrote The Last Hunt, 1954) but I’ve never been able to find out much about him except that he died in 1996 at age 80 after turning out only three books. I haven’t read Dance Back the Buffalo (1959) but based on The Last Hunt and this one, I wish he’d done a lot more.

   Backtrack is a woolly thing, set in Texas around 1879 but darting one way, then another, like a horse that won’t be saddled, never settling down to one theme, but never losing momentum or a sense of purpose either. The narrator is a cowboy (literally, he makes his living herding cattle) who meets up with a very strange and troubled youth in the course of a cattle drive. When the kid (now known as “the Kid”) kills 2 men and lights out, he goes after him to tell him he’s not in trouble with the law — and to sort of look after him, since the kid seems too weird to last long without a keeper.


   The narrator himself (called “Ringo” for a wound he suffered trying to take a dump on a hot pot) has hang-ups of his own. Though he seems gentle enough, he has a reputation as a killer, and suffers from what we now call Repressed Memories: odd flashbacks he can’t put together that warp his judgment at times. And as he follows the kid’s trail, it leads him back to his childhood home and confrontation with his past.

   This would have been enough for a fine Western all by itself, but Lott never loses sight of his narrative peg for very long, and as Ringo struggles with his identity, the Kid picks up a reputation of his own, two gunmen on his trail, and the idea that Ringo is after him to kill him.

   What could have been hopelessly over-complicated at a lesser typewriter flows with natural grace from Lott. Backtrack teems with energy and inventiveness that are a real pleasure to read, evoking the dusty trail, the grinding work of the cowboy, and hair-raising encounters with man & beast, including a medicine show huckster who seems to have stepped out of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

   There’s a really really clever confrontation between a gunfighter and a sleight-of-hand artist (“I couldn’t see any gun on him, but he didn’t look like he’d take long to find one.”) and a splendid moment when a cowboy dodging a night-stampede climbs a tree for safety and sees his saddle climb the tree too.

   To appreciate that last bit you’ll have to read the book. And I recommend you do.

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