Friday, August 19, 2011

"Trail of the Golden Horseshoe" by W. Ryerson Johnson

Street & Smith Western Story Magazine for November 8, 1941

Ryerson Johnson wrote engaging genre fiction for the pulps. For proof, if you haven’t yet encountered Johnson’s work, just read any of his tales that are available for download at PulpGen: “River Round-up,” “The Avalanche Maker,” and “Killer Canyon.” By 1941 he had several years of fictioneering under his belt, starting with his ghosting at least three Doc Savage novels for Lester Dent in Land of Always-Night, Fantastic Island, and Motion Menace.

Maybe that's why "Trail of the Golden Horseshoe" is a bit of a let-down for me. It features lively incident, but the characters don’t seem as distinctively drawn and as memorable as in other Johnson stories I’ve read. Characters here are two-dimensional stereotypical B-Western roles. The hero – James “Gun-Cat” Bodman – is drawn and characterized more by his “tags,” as Lester Dent might call them: his physical traits that mark him as distinctive, such as his flashing green eyes and his unusual posture when drawing and firing his gun. The story feels like an entry in a series, but I’m not aware of a Gun-Cat series by Johnson. If someone knows more, please let me know.

The overall effect is that of a story intended for a juvenile audience – imagine a Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers story in one of those laminated hardbacks Whitman published in the 1950s and ‘60s and sold through dime stores – that, while well written, is still juvenile. This story doesn’t quite meet the level of adult western storytelling typical for the fare within the pages of Western Story Magazine in the 1920s and ‘30s. It seems better suited for Street & Smith’s Wild West Weekly (which ended its run in 1943).

Granted, the western market had changed between the 1920s and the early 1940s. The hero pulps had influenced mightily the types of stories that appeared in other pulp genres. Simply the title -- "Trail of the Golden Horseshoe" -- reflects the influence of the hero pulps. Writers of more literary or adult westerns would be aiming at different markets, perhaps, than WSM: Frontier Stories, Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book, or the slicks, such as Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Liberty, or Country Gentleman. As pulp researcher Tom Krabacher said of another pulp-era author who faced the industry changes in the 1930s and ‘40s, “Increasingly, characters are delineated just enough to carry the action forward.”

These quibbles aside, for this tale Johnson hangs his plot on a clever little mystery and two murders. The puzzle and its associated threats are tied to a gold-smuggling scheme conducted to thwart the plotting of a gang leader to take control of a mining camp. His gang has the camp and its owner under siege, and his extortion attempts will keep the miner from using his gold to pay off his debts – the paper for which is held by the bad guy.

Of course, a pretty girl – the miner’s daughter – plays a part.

The Gun-Cat is heroic, plays an undercover role to learn more from the bad guy, and demonstrates his expertise with his guns and fists.

Overall, this story is entertaining as light reading. I’ve seen better stories from Ryerson Johnson, and I expect I will again.