Western Fiction


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


OAKLEY HALL – Warlock. Viking, hardcover 1958. Bantam, paperback, 1959. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1980. New York Review of Books Classics, softcover, 2005

WARLOCK. Fox, 1959. Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, Whit Bissel, Donald “Red” Barry and DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by Robert Alan Arthur. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

   I’ve been pleased to read a few truly great Westerns this year, and this was one of them, a Pulitzer nominee that can stand right up there with The Big Sky, The Last Hunt and The Stars in Their Courses as a great novel and a great Western.

   Author Oakley Hall takes the basic elements from the Earp-in-Tombstone saga (events that have already become an American Iliad) and uses them to create his own Epic Ballad, much as John Ford did in My Darling Clementine.

   But where Ford turned heroes into legends, Hall transmutes the legends into role-players, fictionalizing them to give himself the poetic license he needs. Thus Wyatt Earp becomes Clay Blaisdell, Doc Holiday is Tom Morgan, Ike Clanton turns into Abe McQuown—and Tombstone becomes Warlock.

   What emerges is a complex, fast-moving and vivid drama-cum-folk-tale punctuated by shoot-outs, hold-ups, bar fights and lynch mobs, in which characters sometimes stand impressively against the tide and sometimes get swept along or even drowned by it. Hall has a nifty trick of showing how the players we admire most can be capable of cowardice and treachery, yet somehow never lose our esteem. And in all the complexity of character he never lets go of the narrative reins, keeping the tale moving nicely at all times. Hall can write actions scenes with the best of them, but it’s his feel for people and place that make the tale so memorable.

   I saw the film shortly after reading the book, and I guess I’ll have to wait a couple years and see it again so I can judge Warlock the movie on its own terms. As it was, the story seemed too simple and too hurried, and the characters unconvincing or simply unappealing. Richard Widmark isn’t bad as the outclassed Deputy trying to do his duty, but I never got a feel for the character, and I’m not sure he did either. Henry Fonda, once a memorable Wyatt Earp, looks a bit podgy as Blaisdell, and Anthony Quinn plays Morgan/Holliday as a prissy mother hen — one critic called it “the most open depiction of homosexual love in the classic western.”

   The supporting players come off a bit better, including DeForest Kelley in the Curly Bill part, and Frank Gorshin (!) as Widmark’s hot-head kid brother, but again the film simplifies them into non-existence. Or at least it did to me, seeing it when I did. The film has its fans, and perhaps I’ll like it better a few years hence. Meanwhile, let me say again that the book is one that Western fans should treat themselves to.

  RAY HOGAN – Outlaw’s Empire. Doubleday “Double D Western,” hardcover, 1986. Signet, paperback reprint, January 1987.

   Since Ray Hogan is a fellow who has written more than a hundred westerns, I’ll put off discussing his career until another time. He is a fellow who started out in paperback, however, beginning with Ex-Marshal published by Ace in 1956, but he didn’t make it into hardcover until Jackman’s Wolf (Doubleday) in 1970.

   From the little I know of his work, I would characterize it as being in the realistic vein, workmanlike and solid, and that’s a decent description of Outlaw’s Empire too, with only a few quibbles. One of them being the title, which seems to have little to do with the book, and the cover of the paperback, which is extremely nice, but it also does not have much to do with the book.

   Which is primarily a chronicle of the adventures of Riley Tabor, a wandering cowpoke who teams up with a fellow heading west in a grand army wagon, the fellow also being a grand womanizer – anything young in skirts – and therefore being considerably needful of having someone team up with him.

   Quoting from page 23:

   “Bad business fooling around with another man’s wife. You make a habit of it?”

   “Every chance I get,” Hale said promptly. “I believe in taking care of all women – married or single – as long as they’re willing, and most are. Spent most of my life working hard. No time for anything but work and study. Then I lost my intended wife in a fire. That changed my way of thinking. Figured life was just too uncertain, so now I pluck my roses whenever the opportunity presents itself – and so far it has been fairly often.”

   “That rancher back in Dodge just about ended all that for you–”

   “No doubt about that, and I’ll be eternally grateful to you for showing up when you did.”

   Riley made no comment.

   Adam Hale’s life does end quickly, and in very strange fashion, leaving Riley with Hale’s wagon as well as everything else he owned — his rig, his horses, and all of his personal belongings – along with a huge surprise. A surprise big enough that I cannot tell you about it, given the possibility that by either chance or happenstance you find yourself reading this book someday. Suffice it to say that unearned surprises have a way of catching up with you, and that’s what this mostly amiable but somewhat rambling novel, full of interesting people, is all about – building your house on sand.

   Or deciding not to, as the case may be. Not that Riley really has a good deal of leeway either way in the matter, which is perhaps why his story does not turn out all that badly in the end.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly revised).


[UPDATE] 10-05-14.   Not having any other choice, but definitely wanting to show you the cover of the paperback edition, what I had to do was to take the black-and-white photo I’d included in that issue of Durn Tootin’ and colorize it into a monochrome facsimile of the real thing.

   I also note that I was being so careful about not revealing anything about the big surprise I referred to that I have no idea now what it (and the book itself) was all about. I seem to have liked it, though.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MILTON LOTT – The Last Hunt. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Cardinal paperback C-203, 1955. Gregg Press, hardvover reprint, 1979.

THE LAST HUNT. MGM, 1956. Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis. Based on the novel by Milton Lott. Director: Richard Brooks.

   Fans of Western fiction need to run out and get a copy of this book, which ranks right up there with The Big Sky, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones and a very few others as one of the great novels of the American West.

   Lott takes a simple tale of buffalo hunters in the 1880s, charges it with vivid description of an unforgettable countryside, adds some thoughtful and very surprising plot twists, and lights it up with scenes and characters you won’t forget.

   Lott has a way of telling a story that seems to build up to a dramatic life-or-death confrontation every so often, then suddenly develops it with a maturity and naturalness that seems to grow directly from the characters and their setting.

   Even the bit players come alive here, and Lott’s descriptive powers are such that — well let me just say that when the freighter trekked through a Dakota blizzard, I forgot the warm Ohio Sun on my back and felt myself shiver!

   MGM filmed this in 1956, and they did a pretty fine job of it, too. Writer/director Richard Brooks always loved filming Literature, but he sometimes stumbled rather badly. Here though, he takes the best bits form Lott’s novel, simplifies when he has to, plays up the drama nicely, and doesn’t flinch from the grimmest parts. Along the way, he loses a bit of what makes the book so unique, but he turns out a damfine movie, so what’s to complain?

   I should also mention the acting: where Lott evoked character, Brooks provokes performance. Robert Taylor makes a chilling kill-crazy hunter (his second portrait of a psycho, after Undercurrent) Stewart Granger — who lost his wife to Brooks in real life — seems at home on the range in his first and best real Western; Russ Tamblyn looks a bit unlikely as a red-haired Indian, but that’s how Lott wrote it; Debra Paget, typecast again as a dusky Indian maiden walks through the part with assurance, and best of all—best of all is Lloyd Nolan as a one-legged mule-skinner whose commentary on the proceedings puts things into context.

   He sometimes seems to be carrying Brooks’ Important Message for him a little too obviously, but he does it with such robust good humor I didn’t mind a bit.

WILLIAM O. TURNER – Mayberly’s Kill. Doubleday “Double D Western,” 1969. Berkley X2017, paperback, 1971; later printings, 1977, 1982.

   Turner wasn’t a prolific writer, so I took a short amount of time to come up with complete bibliography, more or less. The major secondary source used was 20th Century Western Writers, 2nd edition. [I've moved the list of books and stories to the end of this review, rather than here at the beginning, where it first appeared.]

   Turner was born in 1914 and died in 1980. [If you go through the list of books he wrote], you can see that his career had the usual ups and downs and various digressions that a good many of his fellow writers did. He started in hardcover in the mid-1950s with what looks like solid western historicals.

   When he was dropped by Houghton Mifflin, he was picked up by Doubleday – but for not all of his books. Then comes the usual mixture of hardcovers and paperback originals, along with some books that came out first (or only) in England, with some hardcovers eventually never having softcover editions.

   Catch Party was a posthumous book, and why it came out from Zebra, who never did any of his other books, so far as I’ve been able to learn, is a minor puzzle. (Not one that’s keeping me up at nights, you may reassured to know.)

   Moving on to the book at hand, what the first few paragraphs reminded me of was nothing more (or less) than a good old-fashioned private eye novel:

    Zach Mayberly sat with the scrubbed surface of the kitchen table between him and the girl. She was small and slender with a delicate face and black eyes. She was young. Nineteen, she said. She sat straight and looked him in the eye and answered his questions readily. A little too readily, he thought.

   “How long did you live up there on Grizzly Creek?”

   “Since I married Eduardo. That was in February, two years ago.”

   “And Eduardo was killed Wednesday, the fourth of April? Three weeks ago tomorrow?”

   “Yes.”

   The room was dark, low-ceilinged, a typical Mexican kitchen. Susanna Velasquez was not Mexican. This was the house of her sister-in-law, Eduardo’s sister.

   The killer of Susanna Velasquez’s husband Eduardo is not Mayberly’s primary interest, but the two men who had been staying with the couple may be the Ambrose brothers, the men whose trail he’s been following. That they may have had something to do her Eduardo’s death is largely incidental, but Susanna’s subsequent and hasty later departure seems to confirm that something shady had occurred, up there on Grizzly Creek.

   Mayberly soon discovers an even better lead to follow, however, when he learns that the sister of the woman whom one of the men married is also looking for the them. Her sister’s son was living with her after she died, having left her husband, Sip Ambrose, but when the man stole his son back from the sister, she is doggedly tracking them down, hoping to get the boy back.

   Another bounty hunter, a fellow named Yadkin, is also the picture, as well as a Pinkerton man named Deeds. The latter also makes himself a good friend and traveling companion of Melanie Coates (that’s the sister), which somehow displeases Mayberly, and for more reasons than one.

   This is a slim novel, taking up only 188 pages of normal-sized type, and believe it or not, what I’ve told you so is only the beginning. Eventually all of the characters in this novel – the two outlaws and the boy; Susanna Velasquez; Mayberly and the girl; Yadkin and Deeds – find their way to a free-thinkers’ settlement called New Sanity, which the Ambrose brothers (Tucker disguised as a woman) have hopes of taking over, with the aid and abetting of one of the more nefarious members of the group already there, not to mention a stockpile of dynamite.

   If you’re thinking that this sounds rather ludicrous, I guess it does, but it all makes sense as you’re reading it, in a smile-to-yourself kind of way. When all of the plot threads come together, it is truly a delicious sight to behold, and since the copy I read was a third printing, as you will recall, I imagine that I’m not the only one to have thought so.

   Turner was very much a writer in the traditional mode, as off-beat as the setting his characters find themselves in may have turned out to be. The level of language he uses, it occurred to me once while I was reading, seldom exceeds a young adult level – even though more than a few events may be sometimes a little darker than that – but if clarity in story-telling is a virtue, then Turner was a fellow who had it.

          BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The Proud Diggers. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Paperback editions: Dell #844 1955; Berkley, 1980.

The Settler. Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Paperback editions: Dell #947, 1957; Berkley, 1977.
War Country. Houghton Mifflin, 1957. Paperback: Berkley G-433, 1960.

The Long Rope. Doubleday, hardcover, 1959. Paperback: Hillman #183, 1961.

Throttle the Hawk. Ward Lock, British hardcover, 1960. Paperback: Berkley, 1966. (*)
The Treasure of Fan Tan Flat. Doubleday, hardcover, 1961. Paperback: Berkley, 1975.

The High-Hander. Ace Double F-186, paperback original, 1963. (Bound back to back with Wild Horse Range, by Louis Trimble.)
Gunpoint. Berkley, paperback original, 1964.
Destination Doubtful. Ward Lock, British hardcover, 1964. US paperback original: Ballantine U1050, 1965.
Five Days to Salt Lake. Ballantine U2252, paperback original, 1966.
Ride the Vengeance Trail. (*) Berkley F1264, paperback original, 1966.
Blood Dance. Berkley F1439, paperback original, 1967.

Mayberly’s Kill. Doubleday, hardcover, 1969. Paperback: Berkley X2017, 1971.
A Man Called Jeff. Berkley X1650, paperback original, 1969.
Crucifixion Butte. Mayflower, British paperback, 1969. No US edition.
Place of the Trap. Doubleday, hardcover, 1970. No paperback edition.
Call the Beast Thy Brother. Doubleday, hardcover, 1973. Paperback: Berkley N2739, 1975.
Thief Hunt. Doubleday, hardcover, 1973. Paperback: Manor Books, 1974.
Medicine Creek. Doubleday, hardcover, 1974. No paperback edition.
Shortcut to Devil’s Claw. Berkley, paperback original, 1977.
Catch Party. Zebra, paperback original, 1988.

(*) If Throttle the Hawk appeared as a Berkley paperback, it was under a different title, with a high likelihood that it was Ride the Vengeance Trail, which is not included in the 20th Century bibliography.

NOTE: 20th Century also lists a non-western by Turner, The Man in the Yellow Mercedes, Berkley, 1979, but no book of this title, by Turner or anyone else, could be found in the online WorldCat.

   Short stories, with no information that any of these stories had earlier appearances:

   “The Proud Diggers.” Contained in Wild Streets: Tales of the Frontier Towns, Don Ward, ed., Doubleday, 1958. WWA anthology.
   “Blackie Gordon’s Corset.” Contained in Frontiers West, S. Omar Barker, ed., Doubleday, 1959. WWA anthology.
   “The Tomato Can Kid.” Contained in Western Roundup, Nelson Nye, ed., Macmillan, 1961. WWA anthology.
   “The Lobo Parker Legend.” Contained in WWA Presents: Great Western Stories, no editor stated, Berkley Highland F1055, paperback original, 1965.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly revised).


L. P. HOLMES – Destiny Range. Leisure, paperback, March 2009. First book publication: Greenberg, hardcover, 1936. First appeared in Five-Novels Monthly, May 1932; reprinted in Popular Western, October 1951.

   Dex Sublette, foreman of the Pinon Ranch, and all of the cowhands working for him are surprised to learn that the retired owner has sold the spread to a woman — and a Russian princess, to boot. They do not take the news with delight:

    “I thought I had hard luck when a bronc kicked in two ribs for me,” Shorty groaned. “But I didn’t know what hard luck was. A Russian Princess for a boss! Holy cow! If that ain’t awful! I’ll bet she’ll be a string-necked old battle-axe, soured on the world — and the male sex in particular. I’ll bet she’ll take an unholy delight in raw-hiding us to a fare-ye-well. I’ll bet–”

   Shorty couldn’t be more wrong. The young lady is Sonia Stephanovich, or at least it used to be. She now wishes to be called Sonia Stephens. Having fled the Russian Revolution with only a maid and a few belongings, she now hopes to build a new life in this section of the American West she once visited as a child.

   As for being a string-necked old battle-axe:

    Her face was a delicate oval, slightly high of cheekbone. Her skin was a dusky, smooth ivory. Her lips were bewitching. The lower one was particularly full and rich and crimson, and it gave to her expression an elfin impudence which was a delight. Here and there, from beneath the edges of her hat, a few threads of black, silken haur showed. She made an absorbing, stirring picture as she stood there, half defiantly, half appealingly.

   And of course all of the men on the ranch who now call her boss are smitten, but no more than Dex Sublette himself. The story that follows is as much a romance as it is a western novel, with all of the ups and downs and pitfalls that are bound to arise when two human beings of opposite sexes and opposite ways of life meet and are attracted to each other.

   Until, that is, page 150 or so, of a 240 page story, when Dex learns that Sonia has been kidnapped and all hell breaks loose. Not everyone survives the battle between good guys and bad, but does true love prevail? I’ll bet you already know the answer to that.

   To be honest, though, in spite of all the heroics, flying bullets and tragic deaths that occur in the last third of the book, I enjoyed the on again, off again romance in the first part of the book quite a lot more, as contrived and as (dare I say it?) corny as it reads to a modern reader today.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


WILL JENKINS / MURRAY LEINSTER – Mexican Trail. Alfred H. King, hardcover, 1933. A. L. Burt, hardcover reprint.

   Several years ago on this site I reviewed — panned, rather — a film called Border Devils (Supreme, 1932) and was richly rewarded when Steve unearthed the fact that the Murray Leinster story it was based on was in fact a serial in West magazine “Dead Man’s Shoes,” and was eventually published under his Will Jenkins by-line (given the plot, it’s interesting that this appeared under both names — read on!) as Mexican Trail. It wasn’t hard to unearth a copy and I was soon enjoying a fine read, thanks mostly to Steve.

   The story is a bit rushed at first, with Ranger Pete Gray in search of an elusive Mexican drug-smuggler known only as The General, abruptly drugged, framed for murder, jailed and quickly sprung by his friends Neil Denham and Neil’s wife Ethel. Scant pages later, en route to a rendezvous with his friend to sort all this out, Pete finds Neil’s body trailside, his personal effects replaced by those of a wanted criminal — dry-gulched no doubt by the same ornery varmints what framed Pete.

   Pete decides to ride Neil’s horse into town and look around for anyone trying to pass as Neil, and here the Leinster style kicks in as Pete himself is mistaken for Neil and has to assume his murdered friend’s identity. Just as quickly, he’s launched into the midst of a roiling range war fomented (as usual in westerns of this ilk) by persons unknown trying to create confusion and profit from chaos.

   From this point on, Mexican Trail becomes very enjoyable indeed as Pete/Neil does some canny sleuthing, hard riding and tricky gun-fighting, pitted against a clever and unseen foe, surrounded by cowboys who distrust Neil and suspect Pete — and, as you might expect, by a doughty young range-heiress who loves him no matter who he is.

   Leinster does his usual slick job of juggling identities (the plot teems with characters pretending to be other characters) getting Pete in and out of trouble, and wrapping things up with an epic gun-battle in approved Western Fashion.

   After reading this, I went back and watched Border Devils again, and now that I understood the plot, it seemed like a much better film to me. There’s some clever by-play between Harry Carey and Gabby Hayes, and the whole thing is fast-moving and fairly faithful to Leinster/Jenkins’ book.

LOU CAMERON – Guns of Durango. Dell #4694, paperback original; 1st printing, April 1976.

   Doc Travis, a native of Texas, went to Harvard Medical School, as it so happened, but before he was able to make his way home, the War Between the States broke out. Drafted by the Union army, he managed to escape and join up with Colonel Nichols’ Irregular Cavalry.

   Unfortunately, when the war ended Travis never received his official discharge papers, and not having them, he can’t go home to Texas without them.

   Unfortunately, Colonel Nichols is both a scoundrel and a criminal, with perhaps more emphasis on the latter, and he is somewhere now down in Mexico, where another civil war is going on, this one between the troops of Maximilian and the men still loyal to ousted President Benito Juárez. Nichols, as Travis soon discovers, is holed up in Durango with Maximilian and his forces.

   And so, reluctantly, that is where Travis, who tells his story himself, must head as well. Once on his way, though, he bounces like a pinball between various encampments of the two opposing sides, with a band of hostile Apaches as a noninterested but still deadly third party. Luckily, for a medical man, Travis is fast with a gun, but even more than that, he has a glib tongue and a fast-thinking mind, all three finely tuned aspects of his being that he’ll need in abundance if he’s going to survive.

   Travis leaves a lot of death and destruction in his wake, but it’s his brain-work and cleverness that makes this book a lot of fun to read. It’s also, albeit briefly, a work of detective fiction, too, a fact worth mentioning, even though the relevant passage comes and goes within a page or two.

   All I’m saying is that you will need all your wits about you as you’re reading, or you may miss something. Some concentration is needed, more than you can say for the occasional other western you may have recently read. The ending, while satisfactory in most regards, is also left open, suggesting that more adventures of Doc Travis might be in the offing. If so, I don’t know if it ever happened, but it would be welcome news if it did.

[UPDATE] Later the same day. I have discovered that there was an earlier book in the series: Doc Travis (Dell, Sept 1975).

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