Saturday, March 16, 2013

Iron Men and Silver Stars: Donald Hamilton's western anthology

Iron Men and Silver Stars
Gold Medal, Greenwich, Conn. (Fawcett Publications: 1967)

Donald Hamilton is known among PBO readers and Gold Medal collectors as a writer of vigorous prose, dramatic situations, careful plotting, well-delineated characters with realistic, human personalities and reactions. He's best known as the creator of the Matt Helm series of thrillers. But he's also a writer of westerns.

Based on this last qualification -- and probably to capitalize on the popularity of the Helm novels -- Fawcett had Hamilton edit a western anthology, Iron Men and Silver Stars.

The collection opens with a slight piece by the editor about writing westerns, originally published in the Western Writers of America's April 1956 issue of The Roundup. But everything that follows that preface is a fine example of solid writing by masters of the short prose form. I'll share a few opening paragraphs to demonstrate the energetic, engaging qualities of the writing in this book:

"Green Wounds," Carter Travis Young
He was a big, easy man with a way of relaxing completely that was rare in Burt Haskins' experience. Strangers just didn't settle down on the other side of the sheriff's scarred oak desk and act like they'd come home! (p. 11)

"Epitaph," Tom W. Blackburn
The man in overalls could run like a rabbit. He was shifty on his feet and fast as hell, but he was a sitting duck, just the same. Like the shot Jack Dall had put through his hat inside the Pioneer Bar when the fellow had loudly claimed the marshal of Fort Sand was a saloon marshal, Dall's shots here on the street were precisely planted. A warning, a chastisement, stinging the man's heels, driving him to a more frantic retreat. There was only one way to rule a turbulent town.

"In the Line of Duty," Elmer Kelton
The two horsemen came west over the deep-rutted wagon road from Austin, their halterless Mexican packmule following like a dog, its busy ears pointing toward everything which aroused its active curiosity.

"Coward's Canyon," John Prescott
Jimmy Conroy's mouth was dry and sour in an acid-like way and the jogging of his horse intensified it in some way. The bullet-laden bandoliers, crossing at his breastbone, the big Frontier Colt, slapping at his thigh, and the buck-loaded double shotgun in his scabbard, all dragged their weight upon him in a nagging way, and failed to provide him with the assurance he thought he should expect of them. If he alone of the posse had felt this weight of fear he might have drawn sustenance from the others, but in three days they had lost two men from ambush, and he could tell they all felt the thing by now.

Each of these paragraphs sets a stage for a compact drama that will engage the reader in a narrative as compelling as a novel-length work, but with fewer words. To simply call these pieces short stories denies the energy and craft evident in each. They are all small but potent bursts of narrative magic.

Once upon a time, the western short story ruled the publishing market. Tons of ink and paper were devoted to satisfying the reading public's desire for more western fare.

Options for placing western short stories are far fewer now. But the examples in Iron Men and Silver Stars provide a picture of a time -- late in the heyday, to be sure, but still viable at the time -- when the western short story still commanded respect in the mainstream publishing industry.

Monday, March 4, 2013

High Country by Peter Dawson

Thorndike, Maine (Thorndike Press, 1992). Originally published 1947.
Many western readers know Peter Dawson is the nom de plume of Johnathan H. Glidden, brother to Frederick Glidden, better known as Luke Short. The latter may be the more-recognized name, because a number of his stories were adapted into well-remembered Hollywood movies, and Short had a strong career as a writer for the slicks.

Dawson had a long career of his own. I recently read a trio of his stories in Ghost Brand of the Wishbones, and as a result wanted to try out a novel-length work by him.
The stories in Ghost Brand were entertaining, but their artifice as stories was evident: the cause-and-effect of the action that moved the plot seemed a little forced, as did the romantic elements of the stories. Something organic was missing. I wondered if the limited lengths of the stories might have played a part in Dawson’s narratives seeming a bit stilted, and if a longer form -- the novel -- might allow him more room to build and develop his story and characters more naturally.

In reading High Country, I think my intuition was correct.
The novel features Jim Sherill’s plans to sell a herd of horses to prove his worth to the self-proclaimed Commodore Lovelace, a riverboat magnate, so he may take the hand of the Commodore’s daughter, Ruth, in marriage. Jim’s plans are thwarted when his herd is stolen. He tracks down the rustlers, insinuates his way into their camp with a story that they can throw in together and make money selling stolen horses from Canada to the Army in nearby Whitewater, and can also send horses rustled nearby from the region for sale up in Canada.

Along the way, he meets Jean Ruick, running her father’s ranch after the old man’s death with the help of a trusted old hand, Brick, and her uncle, Caleb Donovan, whom she doesn’t quite trust. Jim falls for Jean after he realizes how shallow Ruth actually is and how greedy and domineering the Commodore truly is -- infatuation had blinded Jim to the faults of both, and Jean’s integrity and honesty strike home at his heart.
In the course of the novel, Jim wins over one of the rustler’s lieutenants, and the two steal back Jim’s herd. Donovan’s involvement in the rustling is revealed, and Jim loses his herd again -- and Jean’s trusted hand, Brick, is murdered.

If this plot sounds convoluted, it’s so only because I’ve condensed the narrative so concisely. Peter Dawson pulls it all off very nicely. In the limited confines of a short story or novelette, this plot wouldn’t have worked at all. But in the more forgiving parameters of a novel, Dawson uses the larger narrative space to construct a world, a situation, with fully developed characters and with appropriate pacing to end up with a very enjoyable story.
By the end of the tale, we reach a very satisfactory wrap up. The bad guys get their deserved comeuppance, and the weary and hard-working good guys -- and gals -- end up in one another’s arms.

I’m pleased that my curiosity led me to try out Dawson’s efforts in the longer form. I’m also pleased to say that I’ll be looking for more Peter Dawson novels to read.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Greenhorn Stampede by Kit Prate

Kit Prate, New York (Tower Books: 1981)

Trace Belden is leading a trail drive from Nogadoches with his younger brother, Lon. Moving 900 spooky cattle to a new ranch in Texas is hard work enough. Trying to keep rein on Lon, who is immature and rebellious against his sibling's hard authority, ratchets up the stress exponentially.

Further conflict enters the plot when Trace pays a visit to his ex-wife. Her husband -- arrogant and powerful -- has no care for Trace, and preens before him with the cattleman's former spouse. But Lon throws oil on the fire smoldering between the men with an ill-timed, brash and foolish move. As a result, the rift between the brothers grows wider, and Cord Bishop -- the bullying husband -- has a bitter taste in his mouth and a strong desire to do in the Belden brothers.

Kit Prate sets up a tough task for an author, for none of the protagonists are particularly likeable or sympathetic, not even Trace, the titular hero of the story. But Prate's characters are very human, not mere stereotypes playing parts in a stereotypical traditional western plot. So the route the writer traces in this narrative holds the reader's interest to see just what will happen to these contentious folks.

Entertaining. I'll keep an eye out for more books by Kit Prate.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Clay Randall's Amos Flagg--High Gun

I've been entertained by the adventures of Thomas Buchanan for a few years now. I don't mean artist and blogger Thomas Buchanan, whose posts at The Pictorial Arts I find interesting, witty, and entertaining, and whose blog I recommend. I mean Buchanan, a series of peripatetic westerns published by Fawcett from 1956 to 1986 (meaning it lasted longer than Gunsmoke [1955 to 1975]), and written by diverse hands during that time.

So I was interested in reading other western series published by Fawcett. The company had published a number of solid and reliable series characters under its Gold Medal imprint in the hard-boiled spy/detective/thriller genres (notably Richard Prather's Shell Scott, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm and Edward S. Aarons' Sam Durrell/Assignment series). With a deep catalog of western titles, and the long-running Buchanan series as a model, it made sense to me that GM would have more than one western series character.

I appealed to the collected brain trust at the Yahoo group moderated by James Reasoner, WesternPulps, and learned I was right.  Although none of the series named in the responses lasted with as many entries as Buchanan, I was pleased to find out there are more GM western series to enjoy.

One of those series is about Amos Flagg, written by Clay Randall. While Buchanan's adventures were chronicled by a number of writers during his 30 years of activity, Flagg was the sole responsibility of Randall--a pseudonym of Clifton Adams, a reliable writer in the western and detective genres. Randall's career is detailed at Mystery*File here and here.

Flagg is the tough sheriff of Sangaree County, Texas. He is tough but fair, but he's driven to be unyielding by his family history: his father, Gunner Flagg, was a notorious outlaw. Now retired (ostensibly) from the owlhoot trail thanks to a long term in prison and old age, Gunner now lives in Sangaree County. His presence is a constant prod to his son that the sheriff must continually exceed the expectations of his constituents, who -- whenever they are disappointed by Amos' performing his duties --recall the adage that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

So far I've been able to get my hands on only the second entry in the series: Amos Flagg--High Gun. It's a solid western tale, well told, whose plot demonstrates the father-son conflict described above: Gunner, never far from a scheme, makes a deal with a writer/photographer from a big East Coast newspaper to interview Wild West outlaws whom Gunner has cajoled into gathering at a remote location. The plan goes awry, of course, and danger threatens the photographer, Gunner, Amos, the sheriff's closest friends, and eventually all of Sangaree County.

The build up is a bit slow, and -- to me, at least -- seemed to bog down a bit in the novel's middle portion. Things picked up about page 100 in this 160-page book. But my expectations were based -- probably wrongly -- on my experiences reading the Buchanan books. The entries in that series are fast paced, the characters quickly and deftly drawn, the situations lined out early and allowed to run like a galloping horse. For this Flagg novel, Randall delves a bit more deeply into the psychology of his characters, details the snares the sheriff must navigate in Sangaree County's political geography, and manipulates a much  larger cast than one usually finds in a Buchanan caper.

Thinking about comments made by Ed Gorman on Randall's western writing, I've decided my initial dissatisfaction wasn't justified: Randall is a solid western writer, and High Gun is a tough, well-written western.

You'll find a listing of Clay Randall's Gold Medal output at Eddie Stevenson's Gold Medal-focused site, here. You can read another review of High Gun at Cullen Gallagher's Pulp Serenade. (He also posts a second cover painting for the Belmont Tower edition of the novel, which pictures an unmistakable likeness of Clint Eastwood as Amos Flagg. I've posted both it and the GM cover to accompany this post. Having two icons linked with the western (model Steve Holland on the GM edition, Eastwood on the BT edition) on two editions of the same book certainly is a fine honor for a western novel, I'd say.

Randall gets high marks at Pulp Serenade. I second the opinion. I'll be searching out more Amos Flagg novels.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Strong stuff: Edge and the Piccadilly Western

Recently a co-worker said to me, "You made the coffee this morning."

"How do you know?"

"I added cream and it didn't change color."

I nodded. "Strong stuff."

Strong stuff is what I've encountered not only in my beverages but also in my reading lately.

I've recently read the first Edge novel and the second entry in that long-lived series. (The first Edge novel, The Loner, was published in 1971. The last entry in the series was published in 1989. I'm just now getting around to it. I'm more like the tortoise than the hare.) Famously and accurately blurbed as "The Most Violent Westerns in Print!" Any virtues (and there are very few) the other characters exhibit are overshadowed by the primary character's apparent amorality.

Edge starts out as Josiah Hedges, returned from the War Between the States to find his younger brother tortured and murdered. He sets out on a vengeance trail. Hardened by war and heartbreak, Edge is a killing machine, cold and ruthless.

Fashioned to take advantage of the surge of popularity in the Spaghetti Western films of the time, the Edge series features a lot of hard-boiled, ugly characters in noirish situations. Author Terry Harknett -- working under the George Gilman pseudonym -- writes a sharp-paced, snappy narrative with flares of black humor. But the entries I've read have a far stretch to go before reaching the epic and nuanced development of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or even My Name is Nobody.

Edge and most of the other Piccadilly Cowboy westerns were nearly all published with a distinctive cover design, an easily recognizable style of cover paintings that helped readers quickly see that here was a book similar in mood and graphic violence like others published by New English Library (or, in the U.S., Pinnacle or Chelsea House). The covers and the packaging are attractive, and it's easy to see why readers were first tempted to purchase these books when they initially appeared. 
The violent-action thrillers set in a contemporary setting that would have been the counterparts of the Piccadilly westerns would have been Don Pendleton's Executioner series. But from a purely packaging and marketing standpoint, I'd say the Piccadilly westerns had the upper hand.
I also recently read the second entry in the Jubal Cade series, Double Cross, which was contemporaneous with the Edge series, and also penned by Terry Harknett and Angus Wells, who belonged to the Piccadilly Cowboys. Jubal Cade is another ruthless character. However, he debates with himself the appropriateness of his actions: he was trained to be a physician, to heal people; but he will take a life as quickly as stomping a bug if that person thwarts or threatens his plans. This debate is highlighted in the novel I read when he shot and wounded an attacker, then was captured by the attacker's brother, and had to tend to the wounded man's injuries. Hard-boiled, just like the Edge books, but with a glimmer of morality at least visible between the lines.

But there are few glimmers for hope, optimism, or morality in the Edge books. He takes the wandering antihero figure fashioned by Leone and Clint Eastwood to what may be its most extreme depiction in western series fiction. Edge is deadly, misogynistic, focused purely on self preservation -- as if his lizard brain is the only functioning part of his mind.  Perhaps most telling about Edge is this description in the second book: "He was a man without imagination."

Strong stuff has its place. But for me, a little reading of this type goes a long way. I think the next western book on my reading list will veer back more to the traditional mode.