Western Fiction


BRETT McKINLEY – Just Plain Scum. Cleveland Publishing Co., Australia, digest-sized paperback original, no date stated.

   Okay, I just couldn’t resist a title like that. Even on a saddle stitched booklet of fewer than a hundred pages wrapped in an indifferent cover. Ultimately, I had to read it, and…

   Well for what it is, Just Plan Scum ain’t bad. It ain’t good, mind you, but it recalled to me the Doc Savage books I enjoyed in Junior High, with characters as colorful and flat as the pages in a comic book, and a fast-moving, unlikely story told in plain, functional prose.

   Scum starts well, with

   “Hey Johnny!”


   “There’s a feller here wants to fight you.”


   “He reckons you’re flash.”

   “He’s right.”

   “He still wants to fight you.”

   I like that. It promises imminent action and a bit of humor, and it could go anywhere from there.

   Where it goes is to a band of free-booting veterans of the Civil War—Yanks and Rebs alike — known as The Company, guided by the loose but firm reins of Johnny Lee, a pulp hero in the best tradition: invincible, right-minded and colorfully costumed. He’s also surrounded by a few faithful lieutenants, each with a special trait that recalls the myrmidons of Doc Savage or the Shadow.

   The story that follows serves them well: raiding Apaches, lovely women, brave soldiers, a double-dealing Officer, and action action action action. It left a cloying aftertaste, and the vague suspicion that too much of this would give me brain decay, but that was quickly rinsed by reading a real book.

   And as I put Just Plain Scum on the shelf somewhere between Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Hud, it was with a sense of deep down pleasure that my library is big enough for all three.


ERNEST HAYCOX -Sundown Jim [or “Red Harvest Rides the Range”}. Little Brown, hardcover, 1937. Grosset & Dunlap, hardcover reprint, 1938. Pocket Book #573, paperback, 1949. Reprinted many times since. Film: 20th Century Fox, 1942, with John Kimbrough as Sundown Jim Majors.

   Haycox tended to make his heroes working men: miners, ranchers, freighters and such, but here the focus is on Jim Majors, a US Deputy Marshall sent to the town of Reservation, fast becoming a sanctuary for wanted men, to clear out the owlhoots and generally set things straight.

   Turns out, Reservation is the Western equivalent of Hammett’s “Poisonville,” a town so rife with corruption, warring factions and shifting alliances that it’s hard to tell who’s on which side at any given moment and fatal to misjudge. One sure-enough outlaw, Ben Maffit, has his eye on Katie Barr, daughter of the local cattle baron, and keeps his felonious followers allied against the smaller ranchers, but some of these lesser cattlemen are as bad as the Barrs and scarcely better than Maffit’s misfits – in fact, sometimes not as good.

   The situation is ripe for violence and Haycox ladles out plenty, done up in his terse, visceral style, but he also peoples the tale with some well-rounded and even memorable characters, and gives them enough ink to spread their wings and fly about the pages a bit. And this in turn motivates the plot as violence spreads throughout Reservation’s environs.

   There’s a dandy few pages here where, having de-fanged the cattle baron, Majors persuades the smaller ranchers not to take advantage of his weakness. They do it anyway, with decidedly mixed results, and then blame Majors for the ensuing tragedy. And it works on the page because Haycox has given us a few short scenes of each man debating the situation and deciding on violence.

   I have to say that the characters of Majors himself and Katie Barr never break free of the Hero and Heroine mold, but they don’t really need to; Haycox keeps things moving fast enough to cover for it, and the back-up band makes it all ring true.


CHARLES O. LOCKE – The Hell Bent Kid. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1958. Popular Library, paperback, 1958; reprinted. 1963. Ace, paperback, date unknown. Named at one time as one of the top 25 Western novels of all time by the Western Writers of America. Film: Released as From Hell to Texas (20th Century Fox, 1958) Don Murray, Diane Varsi, Chill Wills, R. G. Armstrong, Dennis Hopper. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   This Kid — Tot Lohman — was no murderer and was not penned up. He knew he had to stay on the place, the way I had fixed it with the sheriff. Also, he had killed Shorty Boyd in self-defense, although I think he made a mistake in not saying how it was done. The Boyds said Shorty had been shot. Lohman let it go that way. There was supposed to be more honor to it, if it involved a bullet. On both sides.

   When Tot Lohman was probated to me, he had one thing on his mind. His family had been pretty well wiped out, except one brother and his father, who suddenly took consumption and seemed to be dying a slow death. The father, who had been a fine peace officer, pulled up stakes and went into the territory of New Mexico, looking like a skeleton that walked and leaving his son in Texas, which led to the shooting, if it was a shooting, that landed the boy on me.

   Tot Lohman is only about eighteen, a fair hand with cattle, but gifted with his two loves, horses and guns. He’s a decent kid, hard luck, but hard luck isn’t unusual on the Staked Plains of West Texas, the Llano Estacado.

   But life has just spun out of control for Tot because he killed a Boyd, and the Boyd was related to Hunter Boyd, and his son wild Tom Boyd, and neither will stand for the killing.

   Tot wisely decides getting out of the country will be better than waiting for the Boyds. He heads for New Mexico looking for his father determined to put the Boyds behind him, but the Boyds are determined and want “justice,” and they will do anything to get it, including turning Tot Lohman, a big kid who just happens to be good with a gun into the Hell Bent Kid, a killer with a conscience and a growing list of white crosses in his wake.

   I have a taste for Westerns, and bend to no one in my love of the more common pulp Western from Zane Gray to Louis L’Amour and the men and women who write them, but there is another kind of Western, the more literary model, the Western as novel, and not just story that I admire. It is no attack on the former to admire the latter.

   It’s a sub-genre of the more popular form with a history in itself with familiar names like Owen Wister, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Walter Van Tilberg Clark, Frederick Manfred, Dorothy Johnson, Wallace Stegner, Conrad Richter, Oakley Hall, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and now one I never knew about before, Charles O. Locke. Titles like The Oxbow Incident, The King of Spades, A Man Called Horse, Sea of Grass, Shane, The Last Hunt, Warlock, Blood Meridian, and Lonesome Dove are among its more famous examples.

   As you might imagine, it’s rarer to discover a book in this category than in the more familiar form and a time to celebrate when you do.

    The Hell Bent Kid is a pure example of the form. The plot may be straight out of a hundred pulp Western fantasies, but this is a novel and not just a tale. It is about the destruction of a young man forced to run and fight through brutal country against hard men who learn too late his almost mystical skill with a gun. It is about a good kid forced to become a killer, a decent young man who doesn’t want to be what his hunters make him into, who meets a girl, has a brief moment of normalcy, and is forced to take up the gun one last time.

   “No more of this fooling around with scare-shots and cattle. I will shoot first from now on and will aim for one of two places, the head or the heart.”

   Amos looked at me a long time. “Well,” he finally said, “if you aim at either one, you kill a man as a rule, and you don’t have to prove to me that you can hit where you aim. I hope you get a bagful of Boyds. But in the end they’ll get you. Yep.”

      It’s the inevitability of Tot Lohman’s fate that makes this a novel and not just a well written pulp tale. The same story appeared in a thousand Western pulps and original paperbacks and still does today, but seldom written with the simplicity and human understanding of this version.

   It’s no coincidence this one ends in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, though Tot Lohman is no Billy the Kid, and his fate isn’t met at the hands of a Pat Garrett.

   After the noise there was dead quiet. The breeze had died. I looked once quick at the faces of the cattlemen and they were a study. Except Hunter who was smiling to himself so that, having known him thirty years, he visibly began to get small in my eyes and once he had seemed pretty big. Yes sir. For as I saw him smile, he seemed to shrivel down to less than a fraction of a man. Hunter couldn’t change. He was still a born winner and could even rake in life’s chips over the body of his dead son. Sometimes it takes a long time and a particular set of circumstances to catch up with a man.

   There is no shortage of standard Western thrills here, but there hangs over the book a hint of Greek tragedy, of hard country written on men’s souls, and burned in women’s broken hearts and too short lives. As I said at the beginning I had never heard of this book or of Locke, but now I will look for his name and treasure this book.

   Told in epistolary form, a long section in the middle by Tot himself, the book is as easy to read as any Western, it just has a little more to say than most, the difference between a great B Western film and John Ford, between blazing guns and the smell of gunsmoke and the exposed souls of the people involved.

   The Hell Bent Kid was made into a decent film in 1958, From Hell To Texas, directed by Henry Hathaway. It’s a pretty good little film aimed at focusing on younger stars, but it is a pale adaptation of the novel, much more a standard Western than the well-written novel this book is.


BACKLASH. Universal International, 1956. Richard Widmark, Donna Reed, William Campbell, John McIntire, Barton MacLane, Harry Morgan, Robert J. Wilke, Jack Lambert, Roy Roberts, Edward C. Platt, Robert Foulk. Screenplay: Borden Chase, based on the novel Fort Starvation by Frank Gruber, reviewed here. Director: John Sturges.

   Here’s a gaudy little B-movie which I found enjoyable out of all proportion to its actual merit. Written by Borden (Red River) Chase, directed by John Sturges (Great Escape, Magnificent Seven) and done up in lurid Universal Technicolor, this is in every inch a “B,” never mind the budget, cowboys, Indians, lost treasure and what-all else you need for a Saturday afternoon.

   The plot hangs loosely on the peg of Richard Widmark looking for the man who killed his Pa — or more precisely, the an who let Dad and four others get butchered by Indians instead of going for help, then took the gold they were carrying out of Indian country.

   To this end, Widmark does some exemplary sleuthing, poring over old testimony, double-checking witnesses, exploring the crime scene and wisecracking in the best PI tradition (“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you since we first met — Goodbye!”) with “tough gal” Donna Reed, who plays the possibly treacherous female lead like Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo or The Killers.

   There are suggestions here that this could have been a better movie, though perhaps less fun: as the story progresses we find that Widmark is not so much pursuing his dad’s killer as he is trying to live up to a father whose love he never knew. Anthony Mann or Delmar Daves would have pursued the oedipal complexities of this, but Sturges just shrugs it off and brings on the Indians.

   And the gunfights, fistfights, and chases with the lean technical skill typical of him, and even a certain amount of humor. I particularly enjoyed the spirited thesping of third-billed William Campbell: he’s only in the movie for a few minutes, but he plays a black-clad giggling gunfighter just like Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo of a decade earlier.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.

CLIFF FARRELL “Sign of the White Feather.” Short novel. First published in Fighting Western, March 1946. Collected in The White Feather as “The White Feather.” (Five Star, hardcover, 2004; Leisure, paperback, March 2005).

   Fighting Western is generally considered one of the second- or even third-rank western pulps, but this particular issue is filled with a bunch of better western writers. Besides this long tale by Farrell, there are four shorter ones by gents such as Giles A. Lutz, William J. Glynn, Thomas Thompson, and Joseph Chadwick, of whom only Glynn is completely unknown to me.

   As you can probably guess from the title, “Sign of the White Feather” is the story of a man considered a coward but who in the end redeems himself. It seems that in order to make a hurried trip to Salt Lake City to raise money to save his estranged father from bankruptcy, he had to forego a fight with one of the men working for his father’s ruthless competitor in finishing a coast-to-cast telegraph line.

   A contract is a contract, and a deadline is a deadline, but it’s even harder when thugs, gunmen and outlaws are working for the other side. Even Kelly’s fiancée is starting to wonder how much courage the man she is engaged to marry actually has. It does not help in that regard when she learns that the only person who has agreed to give Kelly the loan he needs is a woman, and what’s more, she’s coming back with him.

   The story is non-stop action, starting with a rough and bumpy stage ride back to Salt Lake City, then up in the mountains cutting down logs to be used as poles — just as the winter season is ready to settle in. The enemy is suitably vicious, the romance suitably up in the air, and while the characters are not deeply developed, I found myself rooting for them all the way. Is Kelly Brackett a coward? Far from it!

TODHUNTER BALLARD “The Dragon Was a Lady.” Novella. First published in Ranch Romances, July #2, 1949. Collected in Lost Gold: A Western Duo. (Five Star, hardcover, March 2006; Leisure, paperback, April 2007).

   As W. T. Ballard, the author of Lost Gold was a prolific writer of hard-boiled fiction for the detective pulps in the 30s and 40s before switching over to paperback originals in the 50s and 60s. Somewhere along the way he seems to have decided that the kind of mystery and detective fiction he wrote was on the way out, and he switched to writing westerns almost exclusively.

   Which is not to say that he wasn’t writing westerns all along, going back to the mid-30s, at the same time he was writing for Black Mask and other detective magazines. “The Dragon Was a Lady,” the first tale in this western duo was first published in Ranch Romances, and at just over 40 pages is by far the shorter of the two.

   The story is a bit of a trifle, perhaps because it was written for a “love pulp,” but it’s fun to read, nonetheless. In it a young woman comes out West after her father dies and finds a lawyer running the show. Unknown to her but far from a secret from the local townspeople, including a husky fellow who operates the town newspaper, the lawyer is one of those guys who gives lawyers a bad name.

   She goes as far as setting a wedding day, but while clad in her wedding dress, she decides to learn the truth at last, and to fall in love, but for real this time. Just as everyone reading this issue of Ranch Romances when it was fresh on the newsstands knew from the very first page. And exactly how they wanted it.

   The second half of the reprint paperback consists of the short novel “Lost Gold.” I’ve temporarily misplaced it, though, so that the moment this is all I call tel you about it.


ERNEST HAYCOX – Canyon Passage. Little Brown, hardcover, 1945. Pocket, #640, paperback, 1949. Many other reprint editions exist.

CANYON PASSAGE. Universal, 1946. Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges and Andy Devine. Screenplay by Ernest Pascal, based on the novel by Ernest Haycox. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   Ernest Haycox writes best about working men — miners, ranchers, or as here a freighter — made heroes by force of circumstance, set in communities that are not always right or just, but keep striving to get that way. Canyon Passage is the best example of this I’ve seen so far, not so much a carefully-plotted story as a series of interactions between fallible people bouncing off each other in an evolving milieu.

   A book like this gets life from its characters, and Haycox gives us a colorful cast. Logan Stuart, the central character, is the solid, dependable sort to hang a story on; he has a hankerin’ for smart, tough Lucy Overmire, and she for him, but… well, Haycox puts it best, as Logan ponders to himself:

   “It was a queer business — this confused wandering of people toward things they wanted and could not have, this silent resignation to less than they wanted. It was a world where people walked with their desires and seldom attained them, but it was all in silence, held away….”

   I credit Haycox with making these ill-turned relationships at least as interesting as the fights, murders and Indian raids that propel the story. He draws an interesting parallel between George Camrose — Logan’s friend betrothed to Lucy, and also a polished thief preying on his friends — and Honey Bragg, a murderous brute and near-outcast, also preying on the locals. Both are eventually punished by the mining camp they live in (and off) but in very different ways, and it’s this sense of Community as Character that gives Canyon Passage real depth.

   Bragg gets his comeuppance at the hands of Logan Stuart, after the good people of the town have goaded them into a fight for no better reason than they wanted to see a battle royal. And Haycox writes us a dandy. Faced with the meaner, stronger, Bragg, Stuart starts the fight by cracking a bottle across his face, then smashing a chair over his head, then picking up the pieces of the chair and smashing them over his head, then picking up another chair…. You get the idea. It’s brutal and very real.

   Camrose, on the other hand, gets tried by a Miner’s Court for the murder of a man whose poke he’s pilfered, found guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence (He is in fact guilty as hell.) and locked up till the town can get around to lynching him—which puts Logan in the position of having to rescue his guilty buddy for the sake of the misguided Lucy.

   Me, I woulda just sat back, seen him hanged, and moved in on Lucy myself, but that’s probably why I was never the hero of a Western. And I have to say Haycox rings in the Indian Raid that brings everything to a head and resolves the various conflicts without seeming a bit contrived.

   Producer Walter Wanger made a fine job of filming this, hiring Jacques Tourneur, known for his horror flicks with Val Lewton, to direct, and dependable hack Ernest Pascal to stick close to the book. He also signed up sturdy leads Andrews, Donlevy and Hayward, and a host of dependable character actors, including Ward Bond as Bragg, Andy Devine as a homesteader, and best of all Hoagy Carmichael as an amiable minstrel.

   The result is a film of considerable charm and surprising brutality. Like I say, writer Pascal stays close to the book, and director Tourneur gives us the beatings & killings with unflinching nastiness, done up in fairy-tale Technicolor by photographer Edward (Heaven Can Wait) Cronjager.

   There is one point where the movie departs from the book though, and I think it’s an improvement. And since it’s at the ending, I’ll throw in a SPOILER ALERT!!

   In the book, Logan Stewart helps his friend Camrose escape, but it does no good as he’s shot down shortly thereafter by one of his victims. Logan, having led the miners against raiding Indians, is forgiven by the town, mainly because they got their man anyway and no real harm done.

   In the movie, however, Logan returns from injun-fightin’ to find that the good people of the town have burned down his store as retribution for his crime. Having chastened him, they are now willing to accept him back as a member of society in good standing. And Logan accepts it as a just punishment, ready to move on with his life.

   It’s not a major story element, but somehow this moment, as directed by Tourneur, gets to the meat of what Haycox was saying in the book. I’m not sure I can put it into words, but it has something to do with a civilization not built on laws, religion, or even tradition, but on people. And therefore as good or bad as the best and worst of us.

   As Walt Kelly used to say, “it’s enough to make a man think.”


LEE LEIGHTON (WAYNE D. OVERHOLSER) – Law Man. Ballentine, hardcover (H51) & paperback (#51), 1953. Ballantine U1040, paperback 1964. Axe, paperback, 1977. Ace/Charter, paperback, 1985. Jove, paperback, 1988. Winner of the first Western Writer’s Assocation Spur Award for Best Novel.

STAR IN THE DUST. Universal, 1956. John Agar, Mamie Van Doren, Richard Boone, Colleen Gray, Leif Erickson, Randy Stuart, Paul Fix, Harry Morgan, Kermit Maynard and Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Oscar Brodney, from the novel by Lee Leighton. Produced by the redoubtable Albert Zugsmith. Directed by Charles Haas.

   A taut film from a slack novel.

   Leighton/Overholser’s book deals with twenty-four hours in the life of middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden: the last day in the life of convicted killer Ed Lake, scheduled to hang next morning. It also deals with a wide cast of characters, including:

   Worden’s daughter Ellen, who is engaged to marry

   George Ballard, who owns the biggest ranch in the valley and the local bank — and is therefore ipso facto a bad guy.

   Nan Hogan, Ballard’s ex-mistress, now married to

   Lew Hogan, a stubborn rancher who feels duty-bound to keep Lake from hanging

   Rigdon, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who feels duty-bound to hang Lake himself

   Mike MacNamara, Worden’s Deputy

   Orval Jones, janitor and would-be deputy

   Jeannie Mason, a fallen woman because of Ed Lake

plus assorted farmers, ranchers, cowhands, townsfolk and attendants to the court.

   Leighton does a skillful job of setting all these folks at odds with each other: the ranchers out to save Lake, Ballard anxious to see that Lake doesn’t incriminate him, farmers egged on to lynching by Rigdon, Lake with his own plans for the future – and thankfully Leighton takes care to remind the reader who everyone is from time to time. He also works things to a convincing resolution, one that seems to grow from the characters themselves.

   The problem is that Leighton tends to tell us how they feel—repeatedly and at length — when he should just show us — and when things should be getting tense, they just get wordy. Worthy concept, weak execution.

   Oscar Brodney’s script for Star in the Dust tightens things up considerably. For one thing, it starts at dawn on the day Lake (here named “Sam Hall”) is scheduled to die at sunset. And since this is a film, the internal monologues of the book get replaced by a few lines of dialogue.

   That’s not all that gets replaced. Preacher Rigdon of the book is here a power-mad schoolteacher (I think I had him for English 101 in College) and middle-aged Marshal Bill Worden is now youngish Bill Jordan (John Agar) engaged to marry Ballard’s sister (Mamie Van Doren.)

   Best of all, nasty Ed Lake in the book is now Sam Hall, played with savage sensitivity by Richard Boone, a year before Have Gun, Will Travel and in those days a character actor to be reckoned with. I suspect Brodney knew he was writing for Boone, and wrote the part to fit him. His Sam Hall is educated, self-aware, and dangerous to know, a character at once sympathetic and frightening.

   With Boone as the lynch pin, Star in the Dust could have stopped right there, but producer Albert Zugsmith fills the movie with fine actors in choice parts. Leif Erickson radiates bluff duplicity as the scheming bad guy, slimy Robert Osterloh projects petty tyranny as the schoolmaster, while Paul Fix and James Gleason do a fine double-act as Agar’s deputy and the wanna-be janitor.

   Star in the DustEven better, Colleen Gray and Randy Stuart play off each other perfectly as the women who loved well but unwisely. Stuart in particular carries a moving rueful aspect as Erickson’s cast-off mistress, now married to Henry Morgan, as the loyal-but-not-bright Lew Hogan (Years later, Stuart also played Morgan’s wife in the 1960s Dragnet teleseries.)

   Best of all, Star in the Dust moves in a way the novel never did, filling eighty minutes with action under the fast-paced direction of Charles Haas.

   And by the way, in his one scene, a skinny young contract player named Clint Eastwood is what is usually and charitably termed adequate.

ERNEST HAYCOX “Dolorosa, Here I Come.” Collier’s, 28 February 1931. Collected in The Last Rodeo (Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 1949; Pocket, paperback, 1956).

   FIFTEEN men came to a swirling halt in the shadows just outside Dolorosa town, and as they paused a deeper breathing ran among them and an accumulating excitement stirred them uneasily in the saddles. Behind, under the silver-crusted night sky, lay the Running W herd, eight hundred miles out of mothering Texas and more than a thousand miles short of that strange Wyoming whither they were bound. But of the weary distances gone and yet to go this group had no present thought, for directly ahead lay Dolorosa’s street, aglitter with light and emitting the melody and the discord of men in rough festival; a street beckoning to them with a spurious good will and a calculating hospitality.

   Danny Dale is the young trail boss of an outfit out of Texas, hard young men worn with the deprivations of the trail and anxious to let off some steam, and Dolorosa, like a fat hungry spider, sits before them offering shallow glitter, and cheap whiskey. Not surprisingly things go bad, when Bill, one of Dale’s boys, kills a crooked roulette dealer and in turn is killed by the local lawman, Lingersen (“The man is a remorseless killer. He has been here only a year but in that time he has been like the terror. He has bullied and beaten and destroyed. Everybody hates him; nobody dares cross him.”).

   But Danny sees it as a fair exchange, a life for a life and returns only to bury his friend and settle up any debts, and it is then he meets Gracie an independent young woman, who owns a small restaurant and hates what Dolorosa is.

   “Dolorosa. Here I Come” first appeared in Collier’s in 1931, one of slicks (the high paying magazines printed on slick paper which most pulp writers aspired to crack) which Haycox cracked long before the story that made him one of the most admired Western writers of his age, “The Last Stage to Lordsburg,” famously a retelling of Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Souf”, that John Ford made into the film that gave birth to the modern adult Western, Stagecoach.

   In any Haycox Western the power and control of the writing is hard to miss. There is a lyricism to his words that captures not only the mythic and larger than life qualities of the West, but also the simplicity and purity of the classic form. It is little wonder that Haycox went on to be far more than a popular Western writer penning not only Westerns, but a handful of bestselling historical novels of the West like The Adventurers and Canyon Passage that were offered by major book clubs and optioned by Hollywood.

   Of the period he wrote in, Haycox was both one of the most popular and most respected writers to take up the Western, a rarity, in that he was recognized far beyond the confines of the pulps with probably only Luke Short (Fred Glidden) running him a close race in the high paying slicks of the era, yet he was also recognized as a master of action and drama.

   True to heavies from time immemorial Lingersen can’t leave good enough alone and braces Danny on his return to bury his friend:

    “Nine o’clock is our buryin’ hour around here. Attend to it, an’ get out by ten sharp or expect to answer to me without recourse, explanation or further warnin’.”

    “Does the warnin’ mean you’ll reach for the hardware at ten sharp without added talk?”

    Lingersen said: “I never warn twice and I never go back on my word.”

    “Just wanted to get it clear,” mused Danny Dale. “I’m a great hand for havin’ things straight.”

   Okay, I’ll grant you there are more dropped ‘g’s’ in this tale than all of Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey, but still it sounds and feels authentic and at the same time mythic, and that combination of the dusty sweaty hard real West with the mythic Technicolor wide-screen West of the big screen is one of the keys to why Haycox is remembered and still read.

   Haycox is too good a writer to spare us the promised showdown, and much too good to offer us a story in which that is all there is, the twist at the end an almost O Henryesque moment. Without giving it away, I’ll only say Haycox isn’t offering us simple villains and heroes and doesn’t pretend that any duel to the death is without its ironies.

   This last is just a scene as the boys ride out of town. You have read or seen it’s like in a thousand films and Western novels and stories, but listen to the simple lyric description of the following passage. “Dolorosa, Here I Come,” is a slight example of Haycox talent, but more a vivid reminder of why his name was legend in the genre and why he was envied by so many of his fellow writers of the purple sage:

   They galloped down the street, barely clearing the front of the saloon when a burst of buckshot rattled against it like hail. The town shivered with a slashing, explosive fire as the men of Dolorosa stood sheltered in the black maw of this or that alley and cross-ripped the main thoroughfare with their lead; purple muzzle lights weirdly flickered, powder smell tainted the night air.

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Carved in Sand.” Whispering Sands #15. Novelette. Argosy Weekly, June 17, 1933. First collected in Whispering Sands: Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert (William Morrow, hardcover, 1981).

   The online FictionMags Index lists 17 “Whispering Sands” stories that Gardner did for the pulp magazine Argosy from 1930 to 1934, of which “Carved in Sand” is the 15th. I do not know whether or not Bob Zane is in all of them, but I believe he is in most. (Corrections welcome!)

   It is not clear from reading just this one story what it is that Bob Zane does for a living. He is an older man, not yet grizzled, but perhaps a prospector with an inherent love for the desert, with an inquisitive mind and an aptitude for solving mysteries. The setting is not stated in any precise fashion, but it is probably the Southwest US, circa the early 1930s, about the time the story itself was written. (Both automobiles and airplanes are used as modes of transportation.)

   In this tale Zane and young Pete Ayers, his companion at the time, come to the rescue of a young girl whose father has been accused of killing another prospector. She has helped him escape, if only temporarily. He’s back in jail now, even though the evidence against him is only circumstantial and sketchy at that.

   Zane disrupts the man’s trial with Gardner’s usual zeal in such matters with some evidence based on a single fact that (disappointingly) only longtime denizens of the desert would be aware of, otherwise this is a solid, enjoyable piece of work.

   I’m only guessing, but Gardner seems to have two great passions in life: the law and how it can be manipulated to one’s advantage, and the desert and its ever “whispering sands.” The latter has two aspects to it, according to Gardner: first its inherent cruelty, but secondly, and more importantly, its kinder side, the one that can not only lull even the rawest tenderfoot to sleep, but can also hold the evidence of everything that happens there, waiting only for someone who knows where to look.

   These stories were among Gardner’ more poetic creations. In attitude and presentation, there’s quite a bit of difference between these and the straight-forward detective mysteries he’s much more well known for.


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