WILL COOK – Killer Behind a Badge. Avon T-867; paperback original, 1960. John Curley, large print hardcover, 1994.

WILL COOK Killer Behind a Badge

   A western novel, and in only 128 pages, it packs a nifty punch. Will Cook, who also wrote as Wade Everett, James Keene, and Frank Peace, had the knack of summing up a person’s life history in just a few descriptive sentences.

   Take, for example, the first paragraph of the book:

   As was his habit each evening at seven, Bob Shannon left his hotel, crossed the street and walked a few doors down to Big Bessie’s Place, where he had his supper of chili beans and a double rye whiskey. This was the beginning of Shannon’s day, and it would not end until four in the morning; his office was a piano stool and a battered upright that had once graced a St. Louis bank president’s home.

   The power in town belongs to Jefford Lane. From page 7:

The old man was fifty, blocky in the face and shoulders; there was about him the humorless stamp of hard work, and the first time you looked at him you knew that he had never heard a joke funny enough to laugh at.

   The local law is in the hands of Manning Cordell. From page 8:

   Shannon looked past them as the doors swung open and Manning Cordell came in. He was a man of medium height, not very heavy, and he wore a dark suit and flat-heeled boots. Before his appointment as U.S. Marshal, he had been a clerk in the courthouse, and many people in Cedar Springs were surprised that the government had made a law officer of him. Yet somehow he fit the job, for he was a quiet, dedicated man in his middle thirties, always serious and very thorough in the things he did. Not many people could recall a mistake Cordell had made.

   I could go on, but these are three of the main characters, all important, if not essential, to the plot. Cordell is tough on lawbreakers, and Shannon is the only one who knows exactly how tough the Marshall is: judge, jury, and executioner, all wrapped up in one tidy package. As he explains to the faro dealer Elfrieda on page 33:

    “I guess you could call it a solution. Some people might think it a good thing if a mad dog bit every bad person, but who gets rid of the dog?”

    Here’s where the title of the book comes in. From this point on, it’s a game of wits to determine who will prevail, Shannon or Cordell, and all bets are off in terms of which way this terse and concise hardboiled little novel will go.

   It gets a little choppy here and there — two cattle rustlers siding with Shannon are deposited in jail and never heard from again — but there’s a lot of tough action to go with some insightful perspective into the minds of the players.

   And the ending is doubly satisfying, quite ironic in terms of a man who, having succeeded once, follows it up by making what’s clearly a terribly wrong choice. Very nicely done, and it’s quite unexpected. If you’re a western fan, be on the lookout for this one.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #3,
   October 2003 (with revisions).

[UPDATE] 07-30-11.   I have a feeling that the ending of this review was deliberately vague, so as not to any reveal significant plot points that I shouldn’t. Of course here it is, over eight years later, and I don’t remember the ending at all.

   No matter. I trust my judgment. I recommended the novel then, and I still do now.