MATT STUART – Edge of the Desert

Lancer 72-117, paperback original, May 1966. 2nd printing, Lancer 73-635, as Lady of Battle Mountain, July 1967; 3rd printing, Lancer 73-833, as Edge of the Desert, April 1969.

   I can find covers of the first and third printings, but not of the second, which itself is very difficult to find. The only two copies which surfaced on a recent Internet search were on Amazon, and nowhere else.

Edge of the Desert

   But please forgive me. Is this a western? You’re asking, and the answer is yes. I’ve never read westerns as often as I have mysteries, but I started reading them in the 1950s – I remember buying a copy of King Colt by Luke Short when I was 14 and thinking it was terrific — and I’ve never quite stopped.

   And whether or not they’re included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV – Al generally says no unless there’s a leading character who’s actually a detective and involved in solving a case – I have no compunction about reviewing them here. Almost every western has a crime component of some kind, and if they don’t, I probably don’t read them. Rustling, gunfighting, horse thievery, burning out homesteaders, it’s all against the law, and therefore – when written up in book form – crime fiction.

   To tell you the truth, though, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, the crime component in this book is rather small. But it’s the book I started while taking a short leave of absence from the rather long mystery novel I was otherwise involved with, finishing it in a couple of evenings’ worth of reading time, and here it is.

   But first, worth a mention, I think, is that the author, Matt Stuart, was also better known (to western readers of the 60s and 70s) as L. P. Holmes (1895-1988), who began by writing for the pulp magazines in 1925. His first book appeared in 1935, but the bulk of his career as a novel writer – about 50 of them in all – came between 1949 and 1975.

   I daren’t try to generalize too much from Edge of the Desert, however, as what kind of writer he was, as I think the book is rather unusual – a western in which a woman plays the leading role, and a woman from the East, at that.

   Sherry Gault never knew her uncle very well, having met him only once when she was very young, but when he died and left her his ranch out West, she thought she owed it too him at least to visit it, even though his lawyer had passed on to her a very generous offer for her new inheritance.

   Not so. The lawyer’s a crook, and so is the powerful cattle baron who made the offer, not to mention the local sheriff, who’s solidly in the pocket of the latter. The foreman of the ranch, who meets her off the train, and the other hands – her newly gained employees – are on her side, however, all but one, and together they eventually prevail.

Edge of the Desert

   A very slim story, with every potentially interesting twist of the plot into other directions never quite followed up on. But in its own way, with a manifest love of the open sky and wide open country apparent at every turn of the page, as Sherry finds herself more and more at home on Clear Creek ranch, it’s difficult to speak more badly of the tale than that. The ending is as homespun and corny as you can very well imagine, or at least that’s what I’d thought too if it hadn’t come straight from the heart.

   I’m guessing, therefore, if I dare, but I’m going to say that the rest of L. P. Holmes’s western fiction is going to be very much in this same traditional vein, if not as solidly romantic as this one.

– May 2007