LEWIS B. PATTEN – Lynching in Broken Butte.

Signet, paperback reprint; 1st printing, July 1975. Hardcover edition: Doubleday & Co., 1974.

PATTEN Lynching in Broken Butte

   My review of Prodigal Gunfighter on these pages a short while ago was preceded by a post on Western Noir in which Patten’s name came up in a major way. Both of these posts elicited a substantial number of comments, showing that Patten, for one, is a western author still being read, in spite of his death in 1981, and that the concept of noir and western fiction are not in the least way incompatible.

   In fact, Lynching in Broken Butte is one of the books Chap O’Keefe reviews in the latest online issue of Black Horse Extra, in which Western Noir first came up for discussion. When I recently happened across a copy of the paperback edition, I immediately set it aside to read.

   Which when I did, took me just over an hour, even though it’s 172 pages long. As is common in Patten’s work, the action in Lynching, omitting the flashback to the incident in question, takes place in just over a day in the life of the town, Broken Butte, so it’s easy to start in on page one and keep on reading. The story never stops, and neither does the reader.

   Five months before the story begins is where it really begins, though. Two drifters are jailed and then hanged for raping and killing the 15-year-old daughter of the town’s leading figure, Eric Carberry. When the town learns the next day that the two men were innocent, guilt hangs heavy over all their heads, and it comes to a boil when a US Marshal named August Cragg accidentally chooses Broken Butte as a place to stop over night while on other business.

   And thirty hours later, all hell has broken loose. (I may be off on the number of hours. It’s certainly less than two days later, but longer than one, and I am correct on calling it hell.)

PATTEN Lynching in Broken Butte

   The ending comes a little too abruptly for me. With the town sheriff and Clara Easterday and her daughter Nan being held hostage, Cragg finds he has very few options, and makes do with really the only good one. Subtlety does not count in situations like this.

   But as a short and incisive morality play, Lynching at Broken Butte fits the bill very nicely, nor does Patten seem to care very much about political correctness. Except for one or two individuals, there are no shades of gray, but those couple of individuals stand out for their conflicted motivations, particularly Sheriff Jasper Horsley, whose innate weakness allowed the lynchings to take place in the first place. Noir? Yes. Indubitably.

   One thing does bother the backside of my brain, though. Soon after the lynchings, the true killer of Eloise, Carberry’s rebellious young daughter — a local townsman — is identified, convicted in court, and executed. If I had been he, I’d have threatened to make a fuss about the lynchings. He must not have had a very good lawyer. With a guilty secret like this hanging over the town, it sounds like a deal in the making to me.

[UPDATE] 10-01-08.   Here’s how I’d cast the film made from this novel, subject to some second thoughts tomorrow:

   Marshal August Cragg – John Payne

   Clara Easterday – Peggy Castle

   Sheriff Jasper Horsley – Lee J. Cobb

   Eric Carberry – Ed Begley