Fri 7 Sep 2012
NORMAN A. FOX – Long Lightning. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1953. Dell 783, paperback, 1954; several later printings. First published as the short novel “Wire to Warlock,” Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, December 1952.
For those of you always on the lookout for hard-boiled fiction to read, and you have no a priori objections to reading a western, here’s one you might want to hunt down. There are some solid “tough guy” aspects to this 50-year-old novel that may be worth your attention, largely due to the highly individualistic nature of its main protagonist, Holt Brandon, construction chief for the Mountain Telegraph Company. In this book, not only must he get the job done on time, but he has to fight for his life all the while he’s doing so.
There are two obstacles, the first being Mountain’s main competitor, Consolidated, and they do not hesitate in hiring local gunmen to make sure Holt’s crew do not make their deadline. Second, and not insignificantly, is Colonel Templeton, the owner of the Montana land they must cross, an elderly gentleman from the South who imagines that the War Between the States is still going on, and still fighting imaginary battles in his mind.
Holt Brandon plays his cards strictly by the book, and his loyalty to his boss, Sam Whitcomb is never in question. The world of financial matters is beyond him, but what he’s fully aware of is this: If they do not get the wires strung to Warlock from Salish on time, all is lost for Mountain Telegraph.
Here’s a quote that demonstrates that Fox knew exactly what he was writing about, from page 113:
Poles are late in arriving, and the crew sent to fetch them reports a brush with hidden marksmen who keep them busy with guns when they should have been using axes. The wire stringers stand idle that day. The long lightning is flung from camp to town, shouting always for more supplies, more men, and you hammer the key constantly and wish that Sam Whitcomb were up and about and doing the job at the other end.
To add some variety to the plot, Holt is not shy around women, but he is caught by surprise when he finds himself the focus of attention of two of them: Gail, the daughter of his boss, and Ellen Templeton, the colonel’s daughter. It is clear which of them he will end up with, if either is to be the case, but that he will lose both of them is a definite possibility, and what Fox does is make sure the reader does not lose sight of that.
So — here’s a western that’s a trifle clumsy when it comes to affairs of the heart, perhaps, but not– ever — when it comes to matters of loyalty and pride, and other qualities that men have, or they’re supposed to.
July 2004 (slightly revised).
[UPDATE] 09-07-12. I’ve made no attempt to obtain an exact count of the western novels written by Norman Fox (1910-1960), but if he’d been able to live longer, I’m sure he’d have written a lot more than the roughly 30 or so I’ve quickly come up with.
He was a pulpster as well, with nearly a full page of entries already listed for him in the online FictionMags index, a list still under construction. The first of these, by the way, is “The Strange Quest” (Cowboy Stories, June 1934).
The photo of him comes from the back cover of one the hardcovers I own by him. What’s unusual about it is that it was taken by fellow western and adventure writer, Dan Cushman. I’d love to know more about when, where and why.