Western Fiction


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


STEWART EDWARD WHITE – The Killer. Doubleday, hardcover, 1920. Previously serialized in The Red Book Magazine, December 1919 through March 1920. Many reprint and Print on Demand editions available.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox, 1932. With George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens and Noble Johnson. Screenplay by Alfred A. Cahn, from the novella “The Killer” by Stewart Edward White.

   I picked up Stewart Edward White’s The Killer on a whim and found it an interesting hybrid of a book: the first third is a longish novelette from which the tome draws its title — about which more later — while the rest of the near-350 pages is a series of lengthy stories and true anecdotes (true-sounding, anyway) about working life on the plains in in the early 1900s: some quite amusing while others read like Hemingway before there was Hemingway.

   But the opening piece, The Killer, is a genuine blood-and-thunder Old Dark House chiller transplanted out west, and grown quite well, too. White sets the mood very capably and once he’s got the background fraught with palpable menace, he proceeds to build a simple but impressive little story filled with mad killers, drug addicts, distressed damsels and doughty do-gooders — all put through their pulp-paper paces with the kind of innocent gusto that typified thrillers of the time, a tale told with charm that writers since have never quite re-captured.

   As for the anecdotes that follow, perhaps they can be best exemplified by:

   “And I don’t need no gun to do it, neither,” he said, as though concluding a long conversation.

  “Shore not, Slim,” agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. “What is it?”

  “Kill that ____ ____ _____ Beck,” said Slim, owlishly. “I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b’ God!”

   He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Ten minutes passed. Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim’s face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stem along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm. His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.

   “Well,” said it, “did you kill Beck?”

   “Naw!” replied Slim’s remains disgustedly, “the son of a gun wouldn’t fight!”

   The Killer was made into a film in 1932, Mystery Ranch, and they did a nice job of it, with fast-paced direction, atmospheric photography by Joe August (Who cut his teeth on the early films of William S. Hart) and spirited playing from George O’Brien, Celia Parker, Noble Johnson and especially Charles “Ming” Middleton as the mad killer.

   And though Middleton gets all the best lines, I have to say he wouldn’t have been nearly so menacing without Charles Stevens (Who made a cottage industry out of playing “Indian Charrlie” in various films of the Wyatt Earp legend) and Noble Johnson skulking about in the background.

   Best of all, it seems everyone involved wisely decided to eschew typical B-movie complications and produced a film with the simplicity of a ballad, just under an hour of solid fun. Existing prints are a bit choppy, but they can’t obscure the streamlined beauty of a film like this.


SELECTED BY DAVID VINETARD:


B. M. BOWER “The Spook Hills Mystery.” Popular Magazine, November 7, 1914. Published in hardcover as The Haunted Hills, Little Brown, 1934, and in paperback by Popular Library, #306, 1951. Also available online here, among other websites.

   “The Spook Hills Mystery” begins rather tritely with the arrival of young Easterner Shelton C. Sherman with a typically cantankerous old hand named Spooky (Gabby Hayes before there was one, “He was not a bad sort, though he was an awful liar when the mood seized him…”) who leads him on about the “ghost” of Spook Hills, but then popular Western writer B(ertha) M(uzzy) Bower, creator of Chip of the Flying U and a long series about that outfit, throws us a curve.

   This, as a beginning, may sound a bit hackneyed. Since the first story was told of the West, innocent young males have arrived in first chapters and have been lied to by seasoned old reprobates of the range, and have attained sophistication by devious paths not always unmarked with violence. But when you stop to consider, life itself is a bit hackneyed.

   At least she noticed, and it is far from the only curve in this tale.

   Sherman, soon to be known as Shep, is greener than the greenest greenhorn who ever lived, and about to join the Sunbeam Outfit (in “that part of Idaho which lies south of the Snake …”) to make a man out of him at the hands of Aleck Burney, who has a way of putting youngsters “on the fence” to make “men” out of them in the time-honored way of obnoxious bullies who are supposed to be makers of men in popular fiction from time immemorial. Never let it be said Ms Bower ever missed a cliché when one was at hand (enter Wallace Beery, or the older John Wayne, making men by breaking their spirit since time began).

   Shep’s parents have sent him West, all pretty 6’ 2” of him: “… to get some width to go with my length: Dad’s an architect. He said he’d have to use me for a straight edge if something wasn’t done pretty soon.”

   The Sunbeam Ranch itself is harbinger of “a keen sensation of disappointment,” otherwise little more than a dirt shack seen over by the giant Burney, who typically tries to establish dominance first thing by a crushing handgrip. Give old Shep this, it hardly bothers him.

   Soon he starts to get the hang of things, and they brighten a bit when he meets Vida, daughter of Sam Williams and niece of Uncle Jake and part of a sheep herding outfit, and that should tell you a bit about where this is going, though it is hardly enough, because that is another of Bower’s curves.

   Bower knew a great deal about life on a ranch, in fact too much for her readers’ own good, since some of her books spend more time on the drudgery and boredom of actually living on and running a ranch than any good Western can take. Realism combined with a certain Polyannaish view and too few doses of adventure and melodrama makes for an uncertain read for many. For all her beautifully described scenery and realistic views of frontier life you can find yourself wishing Max Brand would show up and kick a few doors down. You wish a few of those “Gosh Darn” moments were at least “Gol Dangs.”

   This one is made of sterner material than that though, and soon Shep has gotten a glimpse of Spooky’s Spook, a critter that leaves a footprint like a bear, if a bear was big as an elephant. Of course we all know he can’t leave that alone any more than he will the feud building between the Sunbeamers and the sheep herders.

   And he certainly doesn’t leave bad enough alone, tracking the “thing” to a tunnel where, “The terrible silence was split suddenly by a scream. Human, it sounded, and yet not human, but beastly — horrible. Shelton dropped the candle and clung to the rock beside him. His heart, he thought, stopped absolutely. His very knees buckled under him while he stood there. And then he heard something running, somewhere, even while the cave was playing horribly with the echoes of that scream. Running down that other passage with long leaps, it seemed to him, and the beat of four padded feet upon the rock floor.”

   Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him, or for that matter Allan Quatermain? From an Indian woman Shep learns Burney’s father was killed by a “big bear” in Montana, which might explain why Burney objects more to his hunt than his friendship and budding romance with Vida, it also makes it unlikely the sheep killer preying on the Williams herd is Burney. Shep has a mystery to solve.

   Then Uncle Jake is killed in the sheep camp while Burney is away in Pocatella, though the herders don’t believe it, and Vida wants his blood.

   “I find,” replied the coroner, “that the deceased undoubtedly came to his death by having his neck broken by twisting. Four ribs were broken also, evidently by crushing. There are no bullet wounds — the only other marks of violence on the body being some scratches on the scalp behind the ear. These, I judge, were made by finger nails, in gripping the head to twist it.”

   Burney is free. He never made the prints the jury viewed. When the wagon where Vida sleeps is attacked in the night and she hears: “a hoarse scream …. Human—and yet not human—mocking, maniacal, horrible. The most awful sound that Vida had ever heard in her life; a squall, a cry — a shriek she could not find a name for. Her memory flew back to the tales of ghosts and demons that an old Scotch woman had told her years ago. Warlock — that was it! A warlock, such as Maggie MacDonald had told about, that haunted the heath behind the village where strange deaths occurred periodically in the dark of the moon. When men and women were found strangled — and none knew how or why.” And then Vida sees the creature pursuing one of the herders, “the huge figure of a man who came on with
giant strides, leaping clean over what bushes came in his way.”

   And then, and then … Shep drops entirely out of the picture. One of the cowhands, Spider, takes up with Vida, they solve the mystery, and all Shep gets is a letter home, while Spider gets the girl.

   Uh, wow.

   The action is everything you could hope for and Bower handles the atmosphere and building sense of danger and threat with the skill of a pro. Some of the passages describing the country and the setting border on beautiful, and for all the Western lingo, it’s not too trying, to this reader at least. If the rather juvenile saga of the Flying U is all you know of Bower’s Westerns, this one will clear your sinuses, it’s a humdinger.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HARRY BROWN – The Stars in Their Courses. Knopf, hardcover, 1960; Bantam, paperback, 19??

EL DORADO. Paramount, 1967. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, Michele Carey, Christopher George and Olaf Wieghorst. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses, by Harry Brown. Directed by Howard Hawks.

   The other day I re-read The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown, which I hadn’t touched in 30 years, and it spurred me to re-watch a film I haven’t seen in almost as long, El Dorado.

   Stars tells the Trojan War legend reframed as a Western: Arch Eastmere (think Achilles) is a skillful gunfighter with a bad heart and worse luck, who returns to his home town to find that the small ranchers (to whom he owes money) are getting fed up with the local Big Rancher, Percy Randal. When Percy’s younger son rides off with the abused wife of one of the small ranchers, they’re ready to fight. Arch likes the Randals, and was a close friend of Percy’s tough older son Hallock (think Hector) but he owes a debt to the opposition….

   It’s all a bit contrived and pretentious, but somehow fitting. The ancient heroes were to the Greeks as cowboys were to us when I was a kid, and it’s fascinating to see Brown set these leathery westerners to reenacting a legend, with splendid prose, fast action, and characters at once larger than life and all too human.

   This was almost filmed by Howard Hawks as El Dorado — Hawks lost faith in the script half-way through and decided to just re-make Rio Bravo. If you watch Dorado you may notice the earlier scenes shot outdoors tend toward the grim side, but the later parts (done in the studio to save time & money) just earnestly copy Rio Bravo.

   The wonder is that it all works so splendidly. Hawks’ gift for vivid action and his knack of making his actors look like they’re actually talking to each other were never displayed to better effect.

   He’s helped considerably by a remarkable cast. Charlene Holt plays the local shady lady with a tender toughness that becomes really moving at times, and Michele Carey projects an untamed sexuality that smacks up agreeably against James Caan’s virile neophyte. Paul Fix and R.G. Armstrong lend their typecast western authority to the proceedings, and Christopher George recalls the amiable lethality of John Ireland in Red River, as a man who will share drink with someone or gun him down just as easily. Best of all, Arthur Hunnicutt positively shines as the Ultimate Comical Sidekick, a character so funny and bizarre that only he could do it justice.

   And then there are the top-liners: John Wayne and Robert Mitchum playing the heroes of the piece with rueful maturity. Mitchum gets a showy part as the sheriff-turned-drunk, by turns comic and harrowing, and he makes it one of the best performances of a remarkable career. Wayne’s role as Mitchum’s gunfighter-buddy plagued by a debilitating wound is just as fine, his toughness crumbling with startling poignancy that somehow reveals the inner strength.

   Hawks’ skill as a director has been duly celebrated in classics like To Have and Have Not, The Thing from Another World and Bringing Up Baby, but he was never better than in this broken-backed western.

   By the way, El Dorado opens with the title credits over some fine Western paintings. They are the work of artist Olaf Wieghorst, who also plays the Swedish gunsmith with the great line, “He shoot the piano player, and they hang him.”

      

  HARRY WHITTINGTON – Trouble Rides Tall. Abelard-Schuman, hardcover, 1958. Crest #357, paperback, 1960. Reprinted by Stark House Press, softcover, 2016, in a 3-in-1 edition also containing Cross the Red Creek (Avon, 1964) and Desert Stake-Out (Gold Medal, 1961).

   One day in the life of a trouble marshal, whose hold on his job is suddenly starting to slip through his fingers. Through no fault of his own. He’s done exactly what he was hired to do — clean up the town of Pony Wells just enough so the honest, clean living residents can go to sleep without a lot of ruckus and noise going on outside their windows, while the cowboys and drifters can have their fun, and the saloon keepers, the grifters and prostitutes can successfully ply their trades — as long as they keep it quiet and (hopefully) behind closed doors.

   That’s what he was hired to do, and now he’s though of as someone to be looked down upon by one half of the town and with side glances only from the other.

   The day begins with the discovery of a dead saloon girl in a shallow grave — making this a crime novel as well as a western — and ends with Bry Shafter having made a decision about himself, or perhaps having it made for him. No one but he seems to care about the dead girl. His deputy is young and very obviously wants Bry’s job, and a committee of citizens from another town is in town to offer Bry the same job he has in Pony Wells, but at twice the salary.

   Bry is good with both his guns and his fists, but what make this novel work as well as it does is what goes on in his mind. Shunned by snooty townsladies and a target for young gunslingers wanting to make names for themselves, Bry finds that the fine line he has been walking along has gotten finer and finer.

   A character study, then, and a damned good one. I dare say that because author Harry Whittington plays his cards close to his vest, and you (the reader) never quite know how it’s gong to turn out. Is this one of he better examples of western noir I’ve read recently? I think it is.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GARY JENNINGS – The Terrible Teague Bunch. W. W. Norton & Co., hardcover, 1975; trade paperback, 1980. Avon, paperback, 1982.

   Drop what you’re doing and go out and get this. I mean it. Waste no time. Don’t read another word here, don’t touch that mouse, just put down the piano and get this book. I’ll wait here till you get back.

   Okay, while everyone else is gone, I’ll fill you in on the back-story of how I came to read this. It’s long and not very interesting, but I’ll tell it anyway.

   Back in 1975 when we were a young married couple, my wife worked at a public library (and aren’t you glad we already have public libraries? Can you imagine trying to get an idea like that through Congress now?). Whenever I picked her up for lunch or dinner, I used to browse through the books a bit. Or more than a bit, which is how I saw this book, 43 years ago, but for some reason I never checked it out.

   Okay, so fast-forward four decades and odd-change, to last week, when my favorite used-book store went out of business and I went in to scarf up some bargains. At one point I sat down to take a break on the only chair they had there for public use, tucked into the section on Railroad books. I have no interest in Railroad books, but as I sat there, my eyes lighted on the easy-to-read spine of The Terrible Teague Bunch. I didn’t recognize the title, but I figured I might as well look at it till my legs quit hurting, and as soon as I read the jacket-flap, I recognized it as that book from long ago I never got around to.

   “Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”                       — Detour, 1945

   So if everybody’s back now, I’ll go on to talk about The Terrible Teague Bunch. It’s a magnificent shaggy-dog-story of a Western about two cowboys, an oil well rigger and a Cajun swamp logger who decide to rob a train and spend most of the book just trying to get to the railroad with a meager herd of mangy cows.

   Along the way they have to deal with swindlers, swollen rivers, bellicose Baptists and a tornado, but that’s only part of the story. There’s also a thread about a woman who was captured by Comanches twenty years ago, trying to make her way in the world with a mixed-race daughter, and ….

    … and I’m not going to tell much about the rest, because it would spoil a good story. I will say that the tale is told with a wry, sharp sense of humor that had me laughing out loud in places, and it quickly becomes apparent that these guys are just too damn nice to rob a train. At which point I thought I could see the ending coming, but I was wrong.

   The last third of Teague turns grim, all the more so because the jokes keep coming, and from characters we really care about. This is writing of a high order, and more than that, it’s fun to read — a LOT of fun! Check it out now and thank me later.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


MAX BRAND “Werewolf.” Novella. Western Story Magazine, 18 December 1926. Included in Men Beyond the Law (Five Star, hardcover, 1997; Amazon Encore, softcover, 2013). [Thanks to Sai Shankar for coming up with the latter information.]

   ALL day the storm had been gathering behind Chimney Mountain and peering around the edges of that giant with a scowling brow, now and again; and all day there had been strainings of the wind and sounds of dim confusion in the upper air, but not until the evening did the storm break. A broad, yellow-cheeked moon was sailing up the eastern sky when ten thousand wild horses of darkness rushed out from behind Mount Chimney and covered the sky with darkness.

   You don’t get a much more evocative opening than that for a Western novella called “Werewolf,” and the story lives up to both its title and that opening in ways you won’t expect from Max Brand (who did write some fantastic fiction).

   I can honestly say this is the strangest story I have ever read by Brand, and as honestly say it is one of the most satisfying, mixing all those elements of mythology and classical literature with a rousing good adventure story set in the more or less modern West (modern enough for telephones anyway).

   On that bitter night Chris Royal (“There were no political parties in Royal County or in Royal Valley, for instance. There were only the Royal partisans and their opponents.”) walks into Yates Saloon to escape the storm where Cliff Main, gun happy brother of killer Harry Main, is looking for trouble over a girl both like.

   Words are exchanged, and there is the smell of cordite in the air.

   Cliff Main is dead and Chris Royal alive.

   At least until Harry Main comes to avenge his dead brother. Chris doesn’t much fancy his odds against Harry Main. His crossbred hound, Lurcher would have better odds, and Lurcher isn’t much to look at. Being convinced that he’s a coward, like the hound Lurcher, who isn’t much good but is loyal to Chris and loved by him, and that he has no chance against Main, Chris hightails it for the high country.

   Which is where this story turns decidedly weird.

   Because something is trailing Chris, and it isn’t Harry Main … “it was no animal of flesh and blood at all, but a phantom sent to cross his way with a foreboding of doom.”

   He’s not far off.

   An old Indian Chris meets fishing in the river sets the philosophical tone of the tale. He warns Chris that no man can escape his fate, and when they hear the wolf that had trailed Chris the night before he explains it is a werewolf:

   “There are two kinds of werewolves,” said the chief, holding up two fingers of his hand. “The first are the ones which have been men and become wolves. They are only terrible for a short time, and then they become stupid. Then there are others. They are the wolves that cannot become men until they have killed the warrior who has been marked out for them.”

   That old Indian is more than a convenient literary device, I warn you.

   Chris masters his fear after that and returns home to face Harry Main, his preternatural calm in the face of almost certain death almost unnerving the mankiller, but even with Main out of the picture there remains that second kind of werewolf, the one that cannot become a man again until it has killed the warrior marked for it, and in that game a worthless cowardly dog named Lurcher get a chance to redeem himself as his master has.

   It is an odd duck of a story by any measure, part Western revenge story, part tale of redemption of man and dog, part dog story, and part … well you decide, but I will reveal this much, werewolf in this story is both a metaphor and not a metaphor.

   If you ever wondered what Max Brand might have written for Weird Tales, this is the story.

CLAY RANDALL – Hardcase for Hire. Gold Medal s1357, paperback original, 1963. Belmont Tower, paperback, 1974.

   Truth in advertising. It was the Belmont Tower paperback I just read, but I do have the earlier Gold Medal edition, so I could just as easily have read that instead, if I could have gotten to where it is. Clay Randall, as many of you know without my telling you, was a pen name of Clifton Adams, 1919-1971, and under this byline he is probably best known for a series of novels, six in all, about a western sheriff named Amos Flagg.

   This, however, is not one of them. It’s a standalone novel about a fellow named Jess Henry, and the title of the book is all you need to know about him. Another word for him might be mercenary — the kind of gunman who will take on most any kind of job for hire — but he does object to being called a bounty hunter, for that is not the kind of work he does.

   In this book he agrees to look for the husband of a famed singer-entertainer who has recently come to an otherwise miserable backwater sort of town called Dogtown, and who since her arrival has charmed everyone in the place, including the town marshal. Problem is, the man does not particularly want to be found, and especially not wanting him to be found are the members of the notorious Butler gang.

   It seems that the missing man is a doctor, and since notorious western outlaw gangs are always in need of medical assistance, they mean to make sure they don’t let their doctor get away. All five factors are in prominent play here: Jess Henry, Belle Steffino, her husband, the town marshal, and the Butler gang.

   Obviously this is an unusual kind of western, but this is also the kind of western I enjoy the most. With all kinds of personal relationships and conflicts between the characters, the author has plenty of room to maneuver, and he makes the most of it. It’s a small scale tale — no historical events going on here — but if ever you should come across a copy. you may have as fun with it as I just have.

Note:   Previously on this blog: A checklist of all of Clay Randall’s westerns. (Follow the link.)

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


C. C. WADDELL & CARROLL JOHN DALY – Two-Gun Gerta. Chelsea House, hardcover, 1926. Serialized in four parts in People’s Magazine, October 1 through November 15, 1923. Available as a PDF download from Vintage Library, a possibly censored version.

    THERE isn’t much to say about Yavisa except that it is hot and dirty. But then all the towns in Mexico are hot and dirty; so I’ll put it that Yavisa is a shade hotter and dirtier than anything else along the border.

   That is the authentic voice of Roger Francis ‘Red’ Connors, ex-Hollywood stunt man and cowboy star (“You want to remember that I’d had two years’ experience dare-deviling for the films under Milt Leffingwell. As a matter of fact, I’d worked almost the same stunt in one of my ‘Reckless Rudolph’ pictures, as you’ll recall if you’ve ever saw ‘The Pit of Perdition.’), and all around tough guy come South for adventure and about to be up to his neck in it when he encounters the beautiful and fiery green eyed hellion, ranch owner Gerta O’Bierne: “She had a couple of heavy Colts strapped about her waist; and for all her sweet-sixteen look and her quiet manner, I figured that they weren’t just a bluff. Give her half a chance, and she’d use ’em.“

   He has hardly ridden into Yavisa when he spies beautiful Gerta pinned by local bandit and mustache twirler Colonel Manuel Esteban, old Crooked Mouth: “Half Mexican and half something else, I took him to be, but all murder. He looked like the bad man in the movies, only more real. A yellow, splotchy face under his broad-brimmed sombrero, with eyes as cold and deadly as a rattlesnake’s, and a cruel, crooked mouth that ran halfway up his cheek on one side as the result of an old knife scar.”

   In short order Red has saved Gerta and is hired as foreman on her ranch, but it is hardly smooth sailing from there, as soon Gerta is kidnapped, and even once he rescues her Red has to face her jealousy over saloon girl Rosita.

    But with the help of his horse, “El Flivver!…EL Hennery Ford! The devil caballo!” and his Colt .45 automatic, Red is a match for just about anything the Old West or Old Mexico can throw at him save perhaps Gerta.

    Cannon to right of me; cannon to left of me. I couldn’t go back, and I couldn’t go forward. Looked like I was ketched, eh, what?

   But it takes more than a squeeze of that sort to decompose Red Connors:

    “Hold fast!” I barked like a Amsterdam Avenue conductor to this pillowsham I was loaded with.

   Then I flings myself with her over the balcony railing, and hangs by one hand. Henry Ford is just underneath me, his back about two inches from my dangling toes.

    “Whoa, Henry!” I says, and he stands like a rock.

   Then I let go, and lands pretty as you please square in the saddle, with the lady jolted but unhurt still in the hollow of my arm. Another second, and we was streaking it for the archway and the great, open spaces.

    Bang! A red-hot stripe flicks along the side of my neck, and I hears another bullet go zipping past my ear.

   Red, of course, gets the girl and the horse, and at one point has a two way conversation with Henry Ford the likes of which you never encountered in Zane Grey, and it is all insane and mad fun written in the indomitable style of the much maligned Carroll John Daly, who for my money is one of the most sheerly entertaining bad writers to ever hunt and peck deathless prose onto the written page.

   Exactly what C. C. Waddell contributes is hard to guess, because Two-Gun Gerta reads like pure Daly, and Red Connors, like Three Gun Terry Mack, is just a rehearsal for the urban gunfighter/private eye Race Williams soon to emerge from Daly’s white hot imagination.

   It is pure pulp, and Red, Henry Ford, and Gerta are all well worth meeting: ”She’d been heaven and hell. But through it all, she’d been Gerta. And there wasn’t nobody like her.”

   There “wasn’t nobody” like Daly either, or this B Western of a two fisted adventure novel out of Tom Mix by way of Mickey Spillane.

Note: This book is important to the development of the hard-boiled genre for three reasons. Most obviously it is an early work of Carroll John Daly, who, whatever your feelings about his work, is the onlie beggetor (to borrow a Kiplingesque term from O. F. Snelling), of the modern hard-boiled private eye.

   Next, historically this book is further evidence of the ties between the Western and the hard-boiled school of writing where the former genre’s penchant for colorful language, fast action, and smart independent noble heroes with guns was transplanted to the Urban canyons of the Big City, while the quieter pleasures of the detective novel were supplanted by gangsters, floozies, femme fatales, gunmen, gamblers, crooked politicians, and corrupt cops.

   Hammett and Chandler both touch on distinctly Western settings at least once each in their work, and Gardner actually wrote mysteries with Western settings, while Black Mask as often as not included one Western in many issues..

   Finally, Red Connors is only a breath away from Daly’s first two private eyes, Three Gun Terry Mack and Race Williams. Hard going as this book may be for some readers, it is historically important to the genre.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CLAIR HUFFAKER – Seven Ways from Sundown, Fawcett Crest #398, paperback original, 1960. Pocket, paperback, 1975. Cover art by Robert Maguire.

SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN. Universal, 1960. Audie Murphy, Barry Sullivan, Venetia Stevenson, John McIntire, Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay by Clair Huffaker, based on his novel Directed by Harry Keller.

   I rather suspect Huffaker wrote this book in close conjunction with the film, as part of a package deal, but neither of them is the worse for it. The book is compact and fast-moving as anything from Fawcett, but rich with colorful description and action in the Gold Medal style, spiced with bits of genuine cowboy humor.

   The story is a Western Staple: A lawman (in this case a green Texas Ranger named Seven Ways from Sundown Smith) brings in an outlaw (legendary gunman Jim Flood) across miles of dangerous country, and as the two are forced into an uneasy alliance, a mutual respect forms and grows into friendship.

   Huffaker has a deft way of putting across a months-long trek in a very few pages as the journey across four states and back again spins out in less than 130 pages, yet never seems rushed. We get a real feel for the toil of men and horses across snow, mountain and plain. And he doesn’t stint on the action either; Smith and Flood run into nasty Apaches, bounty hunters, bored roughnecks, plain ol’ owlhoots , and a conniving fellow Ranger, all handled with a pace and economy you just don’t see in great literature anymore.

   Over at Universal Studios, producer Gordon Kay had figured out how to make a good Audie Murphy movie: hire a strong character actor, give him all the good lines, and let Audie carry the story.

   In this case, they had one of the best in Barry Sullivan, who could look deadly just by shrugging his shoulders. It helps too that Murphy is cast as a neophyte lawman; like many other war heroes, he never projected toughness onscreen.

   Perhaps best of all though, Seven Ways from Sundown was directed by Harry Keller, who cut his teeth on fast-moving catch-penny Westerns at Republic, the best school of all for this sort of thing. Keller never made a great Western, but he never made a dull one either, and he moves Seven Ways from Sundown along with grace and vigor that make it a pleasure to watch.

   I’ve asked Dick Etulain, the author of the following book to tell us more about it. He’s most graciously agreed:

RICHARD W. ETULAIN – Ernest Haycox and the Western. University of Oklahoma Press, hardcover, illustrated, 2017.

   This book attempts to resurrect writer Ernest Haycox as a major figure in the development of the fictional Western. It is not a biography; Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox, Jr., does that in his smoothly written book On a Silver Desert: The Life of Ernest Haycox (2003). Nor is it primarily a work of literary criticism. That book is available in Stephen L. Tanner, Ernest Haycox (1996).

   Rather, my book is a work of literary history, tracing Haycox’s literary career from its origins in the early 1920s to his death in 1950.

   Born in 1899 and reared in Oregon, Haycox contributed to high school publications and then to college outlets at Reed College (1919-20) and the University of Oregon (1920-23). By graduation, Haycox had published several stories in pulp magazines. Hoping to establish strong links to fictional outlets in the East, Haycox traveled to New York City, where he met editors important to his career in the 1920s. Meeting Jill Marie Chord (also from Oregon) on the train east, they married in New York City but soon returned west to Portland, which would be the Haycox home for the remainder of his life.

   By the end of the 1920s, Haycox was a steady contributor to many pulp magazines, including such stalwarts as Adventure, Short Stories, and Western Story Magazine. In 1928, he published his first full-length serial, which appeared the next year as Free Grass, his first novel. In the opening 1930s, Haycox made his first appearance in Collier’s and remained a steady contributor for almost twenty years.

   Hoping to move to the top of writers of Westerns, Haycox experimented with several new wrinkles to chosen genre. He created reflective protagonists (“Hamlet heroes”) and dark and light heroines (passionate and reserved women).

   Even more important, he began to turn out historical Westerns, infusing his lively fiction with historical backgrounds such as building the transcontinental railroad, fighting Indians in the Southwest, and settling Oregon. His most notable historical Western was Bugles in the Afternoon (1944), a fictional recreation of Gen. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

   Immensely successful, Haycox was nonetheless dissatisfied with the restrictions of the Western and entered a period of revolt in the last half-dozen years (1944-50) of his career. Abandoning lucrative serial markets, he set out to write first-rate historical fiction. His best historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952), appeared two years after his death.

   Talented, ambitious, and driven, Ernest Haycox became a major figure in popular fiction written about the American West. Haycox’s continuing growth, gradual but steady, amply demonstrates an author determined enough to defy popular demands and honest enough to write novels consistent with his changing literary beliefs.

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