Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Stop This Man!" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1955; Hard Case Crime, 2009)

Originally published in 1955, Stop This Man! was Peter Rabe’s first crime novel. It’s also more in line with certain genre conventions than his later novels (such as the previously reviewed Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep). The story is about Tony Catell who just pulled off a beautiful job heisting gold from a laboratory. Unfortunately, the gold had already been exposed to nuclear radiation. Still determined to sell it, Catell sets off on a cross-country journey to California, leaving a trail of corpses rotten with radiation. All the FBI has to do is follow the bodies to get to Catell – but can they reach him before it is too late?

Despite a strong, fast opening, the novel hits some speed bumps after Catell hits the road. Switching perspectives between Catell and the feds on his trail muddles the plot and seems unnecessary. One of the strengths of Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep were their mega-streamlined plots. This is not the case with Stop This Man! Particularly in the second half of the novel, Rabe becomes increasingly interested in digressing from the plot, focusing less on the catch-me-if-you-can with the FBI and more on Catell’s reluctant involvement with California gangsters. It seems as though even he got tired of the hot-topic cat-and-mouse chase formula and wanted to write something different.

While the plot is less focused than Rabe’s later books, there’s a mercurial drive that redeems Stop This Man! The characters act unpredictably, and their detours are frequently more interesting than their final destination. There are some wonderful turns of phrases, vivid descriptions of radiation nausea, and some particularly colorful characters (my favorite: “A shrill-looking whore was eating a doughnut that left sugar grains sticking to her lipstick”). These are the qualities that would come to define Rabe, and you can see seeds of their development even in this early novel.

Stop this Man! was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in August 2009.

Some quotes from the novel:

“Catell reached forward, lunging and the world jarred with a screeching searing flame of red that weaved, burst, and then sank sharply into itself, leaving nothing but a total dead black.”

“In the first instant of seeing, of knowing, Catell heard the terrible sounds of everything that breaks, bursts, and rips apart beyond repair, and the mad turning of all that moves, speeds, dashes about for a while, turning like a giant wheel, around, around. Then the wheel stopped.”

Cover Art by Robert McGinnis

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"The Silent Wall / The Return of Marvin Palaver" by Peter Rabe (Stark House Press, 2011)

Stark House Press continues to champion the neglected legacy of Peter Rabe with this crime fiction-lover’s dream come true. Before he passed away, Rabe entrusted two unpublished manuscripts, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver, to Ed Gorman. After many years, they are seeing their first publication along with Rabe’s rare short story, “Hard Case Redhead,” originally published in Mystery Tales in October 1959.

This collection marks another giant step forward for Stark House Press, who published their first original novel earlier this year, Charlie Stella’s Johnny Porno. In 2008, Stark House also released an unpublished Gil Brewer novel, A Devil for O'Shaugnessy. What is important about this collection is that it completes Rabe’s legacy by showing that not only did he continue to write after returning to academia (he was a professor of psychology), but that he also continued to grow and experiment as a writer.

In The Silent Wall, Matty Matthews revisits the Sicilian town of Forza d’Aguil where he was stationed during World War II. He goes in search of a former lover and winds up finding nothing but trouble. Soon the local Mafia get involved, and Matthews knows he should leave…if only he could. First it is a problem with his Vespa, then it is a herd of sheep stuck in the road, and soon he realizes he is hostage in a hostile village with no way to contact the outside world.

The slow-building, sinister atmosphere is classic Rabe. His patient and meticulous prose is wonderfully detailed and builds to a tense climax and a final page that’s a real zinger. Bill Crider, writing about Kill the Boss Good-By in 1001 Midnights, commented that, “Rabe is one writer who always delivers where it matters most – on the last page.” The same thing could be said for The Silent Wall.

The Return of Marvin Palaver is another skillfully crafted tale, but tonally the opposite of The Silent Wall. This is a short novella that reminds me of Nathaniel West. It’s a supernatural, and slightly surreal, comedy about a junk dealer who is about to pull off the perfect scam when he dies in the middle of a sale. But Marvin Palaver isn’t one to go gently into that good night, at least not until he knows whether his scheme is a success or not…

Funny and inventive, The Return of Marvin Palaver shows us a new side to Rabe. His hardboiled novels were always a shade witty, but here he fleshes out the humor and runs with it. A really enjoyable, quick read.

Here are three quotes I particularly liked from the book:

“This was as quiet, and secret as darkness. And this dark touch became our terrible bond.” –The Silent Wall

“He was just running now. He had nowhere to go but was just running. It was all that was left to him and it was what he held on to.” –“Hard Case Redhead”

“I don’t dislike him. He is not important to me, but I do draw the line when he’s standing there and watches me making love. This is a dirty old man so obsessed that he has to come back from the dead to watch two people screw on a rug, for godsake. That’s disgusting, Abbie. Would you hand me that gravy, please?” –The Return of Marvin Palaver

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Kill the Boss Good-By" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1956; Black Lizard, 1988)

No one writes gangster novels like Peter Rabe. His lean, precise phrasing belies the rich characterization, political insight, and frequent humor of his prose. Rabe also has the unusual capacity to be bleakly cynical, darkly funny, and starkly violent, all at the same time. Kill the Boss Good-By is all of these, as well as a very entertaining crime thriller.

Kill the Boss Good-By, originally published by Gold Medal in 1956 and reprinted by Black Lizard in 1988, is an unpredictable whirlwind of vice, corruption, psychopathy, and horseracing. Thomas Fell is the boss, but when he goes missing, his underling Pander decides to make some big changes in the operation. Pander stops paying off the local officials, he allows some of the bookmaking offices to get raided by the cops, and he runs out some of the old timers and brings in a new crew. When Fell returns from his mysterious sojourn, he is crazier than ever, and determined to reclaim his territory at any cost. Meanwhile, The Combine in Los Angeles watches over them, waiting to see which man wins, and which man dies.

Despite having different characters, Kill the Boss Good-By and Dig My Grave Deep are close siblings. Both were published in 1956 and are concerned with the corrupt, concentric worlds of politics, big business, and the mob. The two books also proceed with the grim determination of their main characters, and their mental states set the pace for the stories. Here you can see Rabe’s background in psychology showing through. In Dig My Grave Deep, Rabe writes with calculated resolution because his protagonist, Daniel Port, isn’t the type to act hastily. In Kill the Boss Good-By, Thomas Fell is a lunatic who is recovering from a mental breakdown, so Rabe invests the narrative with Fell’s amplified irrationality. Erratic and volatile, Fell acts with increasing mania. Giving away clothes, early morning trips to the racetrack, sudden violence, and appearing totally oblivious in conversations, Rabe perfectly nails Fell’s psychological deterioration.

Bill Crider has commented that, “Rabe’s character names are always worth a second look.” Rabe clearly has fun with his characters in Kill the Boss Good-By. Take a look at this line and you’ll see what I mean – “I can’t lose,” said Fell. With a name like Fell, how can he not lose? And Pander is the perfect designation for a weasel trying to impress the higher-ups.

Kill the Boss Good-By stands apart from other crime novels written around the same time (at least the ones that I’ve read). Rabe is a true original, and he brings innovation and an inimitable voice to the book. Not only is there no hero, there isn’t even an anti-hero. We watch Fell with curiosity, amusement, and even a slight detachment. He’s wholly compelling, but not really sympathetic. We root for him because Pander is despicable, stupid, and greedy, but Fell is only slightly better. Fell’s increasing psychosis makes him all the more dangerous, and is impending downfall is unmistakable.

As is tradition on Pulp Serenade, here are two small quotes from the book that I particularly liked:

“You saw me throw out that cigarette. That’s the cure; you don’t care one way or the other.”

“You see a boxer with a beautiful nose and you got a fighter without heart.”

Laurie Powers' Beat to a Pulp Contest

Laurie Powers, over at her blog Laurie's Wild West, is hosting a contest to win a free copy of the Beat to a Pulp Anthology.

Here are the details, or visit her blog for more info.

Christmas Drawing! Win a Copy of BEAT TO A PULP

Just in time for Christmas, we going to have a Christmas drawing!

BEAT TO A PULP, ROUND ONE has been receiving rave reviews since its release earlier this year. Jam-packed with 27 stories from the best writers in pulpdom today, including a never-before published story by Paul Powers, "The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce."

This is a random drawing. Just send your full name, shipping address, and email address to: DEADLINE FOR ENTRIES IS MIDNIGHT (Pacific time), DECEMBER 24, 2010.

This contest is also being announced over at - so spread the word!

Just think of the Christmas present you could get from me - an email telling you that you've won this great collection!

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Dig My Grave Deep" by Peter Rabe (Gold Medal, 1956; Black Lizard, 1988)

Peter Rabe’s Dig My Grave Deep is a hard-hitting story of political corruption. Gangsters, businessmen and politicians are indistinguishable from one another, and law and order are just signs that corruption is going smoothly. And the closest thing to a hero is a disillusioned mobster whose chief – and perhaps only remaining – virtues are that he doesn’t lie and that he can see the whole crooked charade for what it really is. But in a deceitful world of double-crossers, profiteers, and opportunists, an honest criminal is a rare friend, indeed. One worth killing, and maybe dying, for.

Daniel Port is a gangster who wants to get out of the rackets while he’s still alive. Max Stoker, his boss and slumlord politico, isn’t happy with the decision. Neither is Stoker’s political rival – Bellamy – who will do anything to get Port on his side to help crush Stoker and gain control of the territory. But Port isn’t one to sell out his friends so easily, so he decides to do Stoker one last favor and take care of Bellamy and his goons. Just one last job, and he’s out – if he can survive.

When he was at his best, Peter Rabe was one of the most distinctive and starkly original paperback writers of his generation. He writes with the same cool and calculated determination of his main character, Daniel Port. You think you know what Gold Medal books are like, then you come across something like Dig My Grave Deep and it throws you for a tailspin. There is none of the fevered impulses of Jim Thompson or Harry Whittington, none of the poetic melancholia of David Goodis, none of the sex fantasies-turned-nightmares of Gil Brewer. Rabe is a world away from all of that, and his characters occupy a world less driven by libido than it is by rational intellect.

As a character, Port is, above all things, smart. And not just street smarts, either. He has a deep, cynical understanding of business and politics and the fraudulent façade that masks a world as dishonest and criminal as any underworld organization. What makes him valuable to Stoker and Bellamy isn’t just the backdoor dirt he has on everyone, but that he thinks strategically. Stoker is smart, but he’s also quick to jump to the wrong conclusion. Port instinctively sees plots and counterplots where others see the easy, wrong answers.

Like Port, Rabe has the ability to see through bureaucratic pomp and circumstance. Dig My Grave Deep is a political story that could take place in any arena – banks, government chambers, or business offices of any variety. You don’t have to look too far beneath the surface of Port’s story to see that Rabe is writing about capitalism as much as crime – though, for Rabe, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two.

This passage captures Rabe’s jaded but perceptive worldview. The cyclical pattern he describes is almost existential.
“I want out because I learned all there was: there’s a deal, and a deal to match that one, and the next day the same thing and the same faces and you spit at one guy and tip your hat to another, because one belongs here and the other one over there, and hell, don’t upset the organization whatever you do, because we all got to stick together so we don’t get the shaft from some unexpected source. Right, Max? Hang together because it’s too scary to hang alone. Well? Did I say something new? Something I didn’t tell you before?”
Think about that the next time you’re sick and tired of office drudgery.

Before I make this sound too depressing, let me quote Bill Crider’s review from Mystery File: “What is unexpected in the book is its humor, of both the tongue-in-cheek variety (Rabe’s character names are always worth a second look) and off-the-wall variety (Port’s bodyguard is involved in several hilarious incidents).” I couldn’t agree more – especially about the “off-the-wall” variety, as some fight scenes have a wonderful slapstick edge to them. And there’s even something humorous about the political element to the story. Port seems to accept everything that is going on, and makes no attempt to stop corruption. In fact, he has no real problem with aiding the corruption – he’s just particular about who is in power and how contemptible they are. Better some crooks than others, seems to be Port’s view.

Dig My Grave Deep was originally published by Gold Medal in 1956. It was reprinted by Black Lizard in 1988, which is the edition that I read. It is, once again, out of print, but used copies of the Black Lizard edition aren’t too hard to find online.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Noir 13" by Ed Gorman (Perfect Crime Books, 2010)

Recently published by Perfect Crime Books, Noir 13 collects thirteen stories by Ed Gorman, and there isn’t a bad story in the bunch. Delicately crafted and emotionally perceptive, these stories capture the best qualities of Gorman’s prose. A desolate spirit pervades the book, as does Gorman’s characteristic unflinching but empathetic eye for human tragedy, folly, and misery. The stories aren’t without humor, and the occasional, fleeting platonic warmth shared between two characters, but on the whole these stories pack an even bleaker wallop than some of Gorman’s full-length novels.

Never one to confine himself to a single genre, Gorman opens with a daring, unexpected choice. “The Baby Store” is a distopic science-fiction tale about the emotional and psychological weight of a child’s death in a world in which children can be customized and made-to-order. It may be set in the future, but the reality is wholly recognizable, and the parents’ trauma relatable.

“A Little Something to Believe In,” co-written with Larry Segriff, follows two lost kids whose belief in a fantastic, alternate existence is the only hope in their day-to-day lives. The conclusion offers a chilling twist to the title, making it one of the coldest stories in the collection. Contrasting this is “Flying Solo,” about two geezer vigilantes who use their last days alive to right the wrongs they see around them. It’s a touching relationship, and a moving reflection on mortality and the necessity of human connection, two of Gorman’s most important themes that he returns to time and again.

In “The Long Way Back,” Gorman revisits another important theme in his work: a man who seeks atonement for failing his family in the past. In this story, successful businessman Giff Bryant returns to his hometown to try and help his alcoholic brother and his struggling family. It’s a beautiful but haunting story, words that could describe many of the stories in this collection. Another standout is “That Day at Eagle’s Point,” which chronicles the life-long tension between childhood friends – two boys in love with the same girl – that culminates in an event as ironic as it is tragic.

Closing the collection is one of the best, “Such a Good Girl,” another title that is given a dark twist by a shocking conclusion. This one is about a daughter who sacrifices everything for her cocaine-addicted mother. Here, Gorman shows that the darkest aspects of noir have nothing to do with trenchcoats and fedoras, and that the worst crimes are committed within the home by those closest to you. It’s heartbreaking and all-too believable.

As despondent as the stories may be, I’d rather end this review on one of the more hopeful notes in the collection. It is a quote from “Flying Solo” that says a lot about Gorman’s insight and his faith in people’s good nature

“There isn’t much to say when you get to this point. You just hope for as much decent time as you can get and if you’ve been helping people here and there you go right on helping them as long as you can.”

Noir 13 is available here from Perfect Crime Books.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

David Goodis: Critical Perspectives 2

Critical Perspectives is an on-going series that examines reviews of classic books when they were first published.

When David Goodis died in 1967, none of his own books were in print. He was 49. A little over four decades later, his work is alive as never before. Many (but not all) of his works have been reprinted, and now many are even reappearing as ebooks. His downtrodden, melancholic voice is among the most distinctive of the paperback novelists of the 1950s. Because he is considered one of the preeminent noir writers, Goodis seemed like a perfect candidate for the Critical Perspectives series.

It's interesting to note that Down There, today Goodis' best known work (largely because of Francois Truffaut's movie Shoot the Piano Player), was not reviewed in any of the major publications. However, his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, which has never been reprinted in America, was reviewed twice. His last novel, Somebody's Done For, which I consider one of his best, was not reviewed at all by any of the major newspapers.

Many of the reviews are hesitant with their praise, while others are downright negative. Only a few are wholly positive. Judging by these reviews, one wouldn't imagine that over half a century later Goodis would be as revered and respected as he is today.

Retreat from Oblivion: "Yes, it is unfortunately realistic, typical of a certain stratum in American life, and faithfully written in the jargon of that stratum. If the artistry is judged conscious, it is a good piece of work. If not, it is utterly insignificant, proving nothing but that the stratum does not offer a pretty picture." -"E.B.", New York Times, 16 July 1939

Retreat from Oblivion: "There is a good deal of drinking and beating up of men and women on this side of the two oceans and some synthetic fighting across them." -Rose Feld, New York Times, 16 July 1939

Dark Passage: "It is hard to believe that anything new can be thought of in mysteries, but David Goodis has thought of it. His story of a guiltless man faced with the task of proving his innocence is handled with originality and brutal cynicism." -The Washington Post, 3 Nov 1936

Dark Passage: "Even when these details appear to have no connection with the story, they have the odd effect of heightening the suspense." -Isaac Anderson, New York Times, 20 Oct 1946

Behold This Woman: "Seemingly written at top speed, with no time wasted on details, the novel mounts to a crescendo of physical violence and emotional conflict. Mr. Goodis' story, florid in style and sketchy in continuity, attempts more than the reader can cope with. The action is sufficient for half-a-dozen books – but as a portrayal of an egocentric, sadistic woman the novel requires several more grains of truth to achieve the flavor of conviction." -Lawrence Dodd, New York Times, 9 Nov 1947

Nightfall: "There is much Freud in the air, much Faulkner in the sentence, much Hemingway in the talk. But any way you slice it, it's the old chase again." -Seymour Krim, New York Times, 11 Jan 1948

Nightfall: "The tension is high, and David Goodis writes very well. My own chronic inability to keep up with all the moves made the omniscience and ingenuity of the hunters a bit baffling." -Angela Milne, The Observer, 26 Sept 1948

Of Missing Persons: "The first fifty-odd pages of this fine story are so slow that you may have to fight your way through them. From then on, you'll be held in the grip of a chase which has had few equals this season for tension and suspense." -Elizabeth Bullock, New York Times, 14 May 1950

Of Missing Persons: "Dramatic and realistic tale of convincingly scrupulous police captain on a tough job." Chosen as one of the "Best Mystery Books of 1950." -Drexel Drake, Chicago Daily Tribune, 3 Dec 1950

Black Friday: "As deliberately fruitless a story as an Existentialist novel, it's written with striking economy, skill and conviction." -Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 21 Nov 1954

The Wounded and the Slain: "The book is refreshing and absorbing for the author has a way of shifting his scenes and thought sequences in movie-like fashion… The author, who spent weeks around the streets and alleys of Jamaica to get background for his book, gives an interesting, fair description of the people there and the conditions which exist… 'The Wounded and the Slain' with its bizarre and even cruel passages is different, unusual and interesting." -Audrey Weaver, The Chicago Defender, 3 Dec 1955

Fires in the Flesh: "A little too pat, the book has a good deal of harsh power, strong narrative movement and flashes of a curious black humor." -Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 1 Sept 1957

Night Squad: "Some tense situations…but the writing is more ponderous than Goodis' best, and the moral thinking confusingly muzzy." -Anthony Boucher, New York Times, 23 April 1961

Beat to a Pulp is Unstoppable

David Cranmer and Elaine Ash's Beat to a Pulp is on a roll lately -- but seriously, when are they ever not on a roll?

If you haven't read the latest Mystery Scene, Bill Crider gives a nice shout out to the anthology Beat to a Pulp: Round One in his review column "Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered." He highlights contributions by Paul S. Powers, James Reasoner, Robert J. Randisi, and Evan Lewis. "Don't pass up Beat to a Pulp: Round One," says Crider. You heard the man!

Ron Scheer and Farley's Bookshop also reviewed the anthology. It was a great pleasure to be able to contribute the essay "A History of Pulp" to the collection and to be included amongst so many friends and wonderful writers. Of all the pieces I've written, it is the one I am most proud of.

Not sure what to get your loved ones for the holidays? Beat to a Pulp: Round One is still available to purchase here at Amazon.

In other BTAP-related news...

Mr. Crider delivers the latest Weekly Punch. This one is called "The Quick and the Dead." With dashes of mystery, revenge, and horror, the story is wild, unpredictable, and impossible to put down. Not wanting to ruin its surprises, I'll just say that it is about a young woman with a 12-gauge shotgun on an unusual mission for vengeance.
She pushes the thought out of her mind and tries to find something to eat in the kitchen. She cannot remember when she last ate real food. She has been existing for weeks (months?) now on whatever she can scavenge from other houses, from stores. There is never much. Others who are still alive have always been there before her, and she has to be wary of them. The others are more dangerous to her than the dead.
And Mr. Cranmer himself has also been in the headlines lately. Keith Rawson, over at Day Labor, named "The Great Whydini" as the sixth best short story of the year. If you haven't read it, take a look and you'll be sure to agree with Rawson's praise. Under the pen-name Edward A. Grainer, Cranmer's latest Cash Laramie story is over at Dark Valentine. It is called "Justice Served," another terrific entry in the on-going Western series. Fingers crossed that someday soon we'll see a collection of all these stories in print. (Hint, hint, to any publishers out there...) And over at Women of Mystery, there is an interview with David about Beat to a Pulp.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Before She Kills" by Fredric Brown (Dennis McMillan, 1984)

If there’s anything better than one Fredric Brown story, it’s several stories, and it doesn’t get any better than the Dennis McMillan collections. Before She Kills was the second volume of McMillan’s “Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps” series. The first hardcover edition appeared in 1984, and the paperback (one of the few that McMillan issued for the series) appeared in 1986. William F. Nolan, noted scholar and author, was also a friend of Brown’s and wrote the introduction. “I found him to be a warm, quiet man with a wacky, pun-loving sense of humor,” remembers Nolan, “a sideways thinker who did all his rough-draft writing in his head.”

Nolan’s portrait of Brown should strike a chord with many writers. Before his first novel sold, he held down a day job to support the family and devoted the night to writing. Brown was, for years, a proofreader, and his intimacy with the English language shows through in his stories’ playful literacy.

The stories in Before She Kills span the gamut of Brown’s career, from 1940s pulps to 1960s digests, and they’re as madcap as they are magnificent. The consistent high-caliber of his stories is damned impressive, and it’s a blessing for fans of his work that he was so prolific.

The title story, “Before She Kills,” is one of two stories in the collection to feature Brown’s series private investigators, the uncle and nephew team of Ed and Am Hunter. In this yarn, a husband desperate for a divorce hires Ed and Am to make sure that his wife tries to kill him. Their job? Make sure she doesn’t succeed. It’s a terrific story that is characteristic of Brown’s sly ability to twist an archetype into something totally bizarre and original. Ed and Am’s other appearance is in “The Missing Actor,” about a thespian with a fondness for gambling who takes a powder with his father’s money.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Cat Walks,” originally published in the April 1942 issue of Detective Story Magazine. How’s this for an opener? “It all started with one cat, one small gray cat. It ended with nine of them. Gray cats all – because at night all cats are gray – and some of them were alive and others dead. And there was a man without a face, but the cat’s didn’t do that.” Brown is firing on all cylinders on this tale – a detective story with nightmarish illogic, a hint of surreal horror, and topped with a wily sense of humor.

In “A Date to Die,” a mystic (one of Brown’s favorite subjects) calls the police to report a murder that he commits while on the telephone. “A Mad Dog!” is about an alcoholic playwright who visits a doctor who specializes in experimental treatments for alcoholics, and winds up chasing an escaped homicidal lunatic through the night. And in “Handbook for Homicide,” Brown delivers a splendid twist on a variety of mystery archetypes. Take an old dark house, fill it with a bunch of astronomers, toss in some poisonous snakes, add a locked room murder, and top it off with a torrential rainstorm. With Brown behind the scenes, the possibilities are limitless with this one. It’s another short story classic from Fredric Brown.

Here’s a funny quip from “A Handbook for Homicide” that I’d like to close with: “I’ve been wet before and it hasn’t hurt me. I’ve been sober, and it has.”

This is among the more affordable McMillan volumes, and it is well worth tracking down.

Monday, December 13, 2010

David Goodis Memorial Gathering

Just got wind of this upcoming David Goodis Memorial from Lou Boxer's NoirCon blog. I'm planning on being there. Stay tuned for more information.

David Goodis Memorial - January 9, 2011

Remembering David Goodis - 44 Years after his Death

March 2, 1917 – January 7, 1967

January 9, 2011 - Sunday

Just when you thought that you had heard the last of David Goodis and NoirCon, it is once again time for all Goodisheads to join together in the frigid cold of January to remember the passing of David Goodis by visiting his final resting place and a few other spots along the way.

Mark your calendars for what will no doubt be another celebration of a life that ended much to soon.

Details to follow.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"The Sharpshooter" by Ed Gorman (Gold Medal, 1994)

James Reasoner once told me that Ed Gorman’s Westerns were even darker than his crime novels. After reading The Sharpshooter, I’d have to agree. I’d also have to add that The Sharpshooter is one of his best (along with his latest Dev Conrad novel, Stranglehold). It is distinguished by Gorman’s trademark excellence: sage but humble wisdom, tragically empathetic characters, and impeccable storytelling.

Mitch Coldwell is tormented as only a noir protagonist can be. A washed-up trick shooter who tries to wash away a lifetime of sorrow with booze, no one in town takes kindly to him. Except for Evelyn, a local nurse who can look beyond the inebriation and see the human Mitch once was, and could be again. But then local tycoon Jeremiah Belden’s son is killed, and Jeremiah puts the blame on Evelyn. Soon she goes missing, and Mitch is the only one in town who suspects foul play. Can he put himself back together enough to save the missing woman?

Before I make it sound too depressing, one of Gorman’s gifts is his of humor. Whether it is Mitch vomiting on neighbors or trying to willfully wet himself in the back of a carriage, Gorman’s comic sensibility is utterly human, and you can find in these light-hearted moments the same perceptive and knowing qualities as you could in the book’s darkest scenes.

Amidst all the bleakness, Gorman is able to create these magical, spontaneous moments of warmth between two characters. The characters could have known each other for lifetimes or for minutes, but these brief feelings of human attachment and connection stand out as one of the most significant aspects of Gorman’s work. Evelyn’s kind words to the town rummy on a bench; John, Mitch’s colleague in the show, who stood by during the best and worst of times, and is willing to be there for the worse that’s yet to come; Sonia, Evelyn’s co-worker, who learns to look beyond Mitch’s boozing; and even a corrupt employee’s moment of honesty – these scenes, however fleeting, overpower all the moments alienation and self-loathing that occur in the story.

One of the aspects of Gorman’s writing that I find continually rewarding is his modest but unerringly articulate style. The clarity of his expression, the sleekness of his plotting, and the openness of his narration makes The Sharpshooter all the more powerful.

Picking just a few of my favorite lines of this book is no easy task – but I’ll give it a shot.

“So, you see, there are all kinds of reasons why people that dislike other people. The only thing you can worry about is if you’re good to the people who care about you. Nobody else matters, the way I see it.”

“No, there was no way I’d ever blame her for what she’d done. She’d just been trying to survive the best way she knew how. Sometimes that’s all a person can do.”

“The men, being men, tended to end up in liveries, blacksmith shops, feed stores, and, of course, saloons, where they promised their wives they’d be 'only for a beer or two,' but then started doing the kind of serious drinking that middle-aged men do to push back the grave momentarily and feel young again. It’s not much different than their wives looking in dress shop windows.”

"Wolf Moon" by Ed Gorman (Gold Medal, 1993)

I’m a big fan of Ed Gorman’s work, but the opening prelude to Wolf Moon still caught me off guard and left me excitedly wondering what more twists lay just around the corner? Many more, I was pleased to discover. The story is as noir as they come, with a bleak and blistering finale you won’t soon forget. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1993, Wolf Moon is now available for the Kindle via Top Suspense Group.

The novel opens with the story of a wolf cub who was captured, and whose family was murdered, by a man named Schroeder. Gorman then shifts to the story of Chase, who was set-up and sent to prison because of this same Schroeder. When he gets out of jail, he has the chance to reunite with the love of his life, Annie, and start a new life as a police officer – but Chase’s thirst for vengeance threatens to ruin everything.

With its dual story of man and animal, Wolf Moon sometimes has the quality of a fable. It’s an original and innovative spin on the Western revenge novel, and Gorman isn’t afraid to risk taking new paths or going to dark places with this one. The parallel stories of entrapment highlight not only a festering need for vengeance that consumes one’s identity, but also how the loss of one’s family can ignite and exacerbate that all-consuming passion for destruction. Family is an important topic in Gorman’s work, a constant and necessary reminder of humanity, and without that reminder a character drifts away into oblivion. Family offers his characters a moral grounding, a reaffirming sense of the self, and absolution for their actions, whatever they may be.

A reoccurring motif in Gorman’s books is that there no crime is worse than hurting one’s own family, or their loved ones. That single act of betrayal, whether deliberate or accidental, seems to be the most devastating of all. These sorts of stories reappear throughout Gorman’s work, sometimes as the central plot (as in Wolf Moon), and other times as an aside about a minor character. Chandler famously wrote that Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Gorman seems to follow in this trajectory, but he takes it in his own direction: he gives back a conscience to crimes committed, a lingering sense of regret that never goes away, and a moral weight that wears away at ones soul.

Wolf Moon is an excellent Western novel thick with noir and suspense overtones. Fans of Gorman’s crime novels shouldn’t miss this one. Wolf Moon is now available for the Kindle via Top Suspense Group.

Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“They’d drifted down from the taverns, animals who could smell blood on the wind, animals whose taste for violence was never sated, miners, merchants, cowboys, drifters – it was a taste and thrill that cut across all lines of class and intelligence and color. Most men, and a sad number of women, loved watching other men hurt each other.”

“After a time the darkness was gone and I could see the stars again, and I wondered what it would be like to live on one of them, so far away from human grief. But they probably had their own griefs, the people on those stars, just as bad as ours.”

“A jailbird sits in his cell and dreams up these sweet little stories about how good life will be after he pulls just one more job…I should put a bullet in your face right here and right now.”

“And then there was the eternal cosmic night, cold and dark, not life and not quite death, either. Just pain and – blankness.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vintage Gold Medal Western Ads

Here is a selection of vintage Gold Medal Western ads from The Roundup, the Western Writers of America's newsletter.


The Roundup, Vol. XIV, No. 6, June 1966

The Roundup, Vol. VX, No. 12, Dec. 1967

The Roundup, Vol. XVI, No. 6, June 1968

The Roundup, Vol. XVI, No. 12, Dec. 1968

The Roundup, Vol. XVII, No. 6, June 1969

The Roundup, Vol XVII, No. 12, Dec. 1970

The Roundup, Vol. XIX, No. 12, Dec. 1971

"Iron Men and Silver Stars" edited by Donald Hamilton (Gold Medal, 1967)

Donald Hamilton’s 1967 Gold Medal anthology Iron Men and Silver Stars collects 11 short stories and 1 essay from members of the Western Writers of America. It is a diverse collection, some stories leaning more towards action, others towards drama, and even the occasional comedy. Many were new stories for the collection, though a few were reprints, like Todhunter Ballard’s “The Mayor of Strawberry Hill,” from The Saturday Evening Post. Ballard’s story was actually one of the few that I couldn’t get into – it’s about a judge whose hasty and ill-thought decisions cause a town to run amuck. I could see there was supposed to be humor, but it missed me, and I couldn’t latch on to any of the characters.

Hamilton himself provides two of the best pieces. “The Great Tradition” is an essay that originally appeared in The Roundup, the WWA newsletter, in praise of Western writers like Zane Grey who captured his imagination as a reader, and who wrote damned good entertainment. It’s an essay that champions storytelling and imagination and unpretentious writing. Here is how it opens:
“They are trying to tear down Zane Grey. Little men with dry and scholarly minds who never followed the U.P. trail or rode with the riders of the purple sage by the light of the western stars are pursing their thin lips and saying that fifty-four millions copies are all very well, but it just proves you-know-what about the pubic taste, and after all, the man couldn’t write.”
Hamilton’s other contribution is the short story “The Guns of William Longley,” about a young gunfighter who returns home to find his intended has chosen a new man. When he steps out into the street for a duel, he feels that his guns are haunted by the ghost of their former owner, the notorious William Longley. It’s a terrific story in the vein of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” that has a lot to do with the creation of Western myths and legends.

Another standout story was Luke Short’s novelette “The Hangman,” about a deputy marshal on the hunt for a bank robber. When the deputy pays an ex-girlfriend to single out the wanted man, he wonders whether the money will overcome her love for the outlaw. At the heart of the story is the complex moral code of the Old West, how the distinction between good and bad was never a clear line, and about the ethical vagaries when it came to standing up for the law and standing up for what is right. Many Western stories touch on these themes, but when done right they still resonate, and Luke Short does a terrific job. I also really enjoyed “Peace Officer” by Brian Garfield, about a jaded, one-armed sheriff who gets one last shot at redemption.

Perhaps my favorite story was from an author I had never heard of before, Carter Travis Young, called “Green Wounds.” It’s a suspense story about a mysterious young man who starts a conversation with the local sheriff but who knows a few more things about the sheriff’s shady past than he should. Introducing readers to new writers is one of the jobs of a good anthology, so I think that editor Donald Hamilton fulfilled his duty. Apparently Carter Travis Young also wrote a full-length novel for Gold Medal called Shadow of a Gun. I will try and track it down.

I should also mention the unique artwork by Stan Galli on the cover. I love this sketch of a sheriff – I don’t recall see many sketches on the covers of Gold Medal books, mainly just paintings.

Here are the full contents of the anthology:

“The Great Tradition” by Donald Hamilton
“Green Wounds” by Carter Travis Young
“Epitaph” by Tom W. Blackburn
“In the Line of Duty” by Elmer Kelton
“Peace Officer” by Brian Garfield
“The Mayor of Strawberry Hill” by Todhunter Ballard
“Lawmen Stand Alone” by Lin Searles
“Coward's Canyon” by John Prescott
“The O'Keefe Luck” by Wayne D. Overholser
“The Hangman” by Luke Short
“Lynch Mob at Cimarron Crossing” by Thomas Thompson
“The Guns of William Longley” by Donald Hamilton

And a couple of quotes that I liked:

“The years had reduced John Morgan to a kind of bookmark, which only marked the place where a great lawman had been.” – “Peace Officer,” by Brian Garfield

“Killing had been the natural way of the times. A man did not survive without killing. Now, according to Dave, a man did not survive if he killed.” – “The O’Keefe Luck,” by Wayne D. Overholser

Friday, December 10, 2010

"The Rare Breed" by Theodore Sturgeon (Gold Medal, 1966)

Theodore Sturgeon is most famous for his science-fiction short stories and novels, but he also wrote Western short stories, and a single full-length Western book – a novelization of the 1966 movie The Rare Breed, which starred James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith. The movie tie-in was based on an original screenplay by Ric Hardman. Sturgeon’s plot differs slightly from the finished movie, but I am unsure of whether these story changes were made by Sturgeon, or whether the script itself was altered after production began (and, presumably, after Sturgeon’s novel was already written).

Sturgeon’s novel opens in St. Louis, with two English women – mother Martha Evans and her daughter Hilary – arriving at a cattle auction. They’ve brought with them a special breed of cattle, Herefords, which they aim to import and breed with the Longhorns. Many of the locals seem resentful of this new breed of cattle. Suspecting foulplay, Martha hires the veteran trail boss Sam “Bulldog” Burnett to accompany them to Texas to deliver their prized bull, Vindicator. But Hilary has her own suspicions about Burnett and his motives for taking the job.

Taken as a whole, The Rare Breed is uneven. On the plus side, Sturgeon certainly has a distinctive voice, and once in a while he will catch you off guard with an ornate, poetic passage whose wording and cadence is simply beautiful. His best lines are better spoken aloud than silently read. This passage, for example, is structured more like poetry than prose, and its power lies in suggestive imagery rather than concrete details.
The passenger’s wilderness is ever home-ground to the helmsmen, and there was little talk while the women watched the quarrel of light and the victory of day over the stars, and the metamorphosis of black nothingness around and under them, to endless green with a sharp neat border of horizon and a feather-flecked roof of blue.
He also devotes a lot of attention to phonetic dialogue, which adds a lot to the characters and makes for witty banter.

Some of the drawbacks to the book are that it seems hastily written and poorly structured. Sturgeon can spend 7 pages on a tangent about Martha Evans riding sidesaddle, but yet gloss over significant plot details. The poetic phrasing that can be lovely to speak can, unfortunately, drag down a story, as well. Plot points, dialogue, and action tend to get lost in bloated paragraphs and overly complex syntax. More than once I couldn’t discern the subject of a sentence, or even figure out who the “he” or “she” in a scene were supposed to be.

Uncharacteristically of Gold Medal novels, the pacing of The Rare Breed is also rather slow. The opening cattle auction scene is nearly the entire first third of the book, and it isn’t until almost 2/3s of the way that we actually get going on the cattle trail. Sturgeon seems less interested in the story and its characters than he does the specific details of the Old West. He lovingly and exhaustively describes how to filter muddy water through a cheesecloth and the distinctions of a English sidesaddle, and he renders geography with both precision and lyricism. Yet Sturgeon fumbles with significant story details – the finale is especially clumsy, with the introduction of a crucial character just pages before the book ends. It makes for an anti-climatic conclusion.

The movie The Rare Breed is quite good, from what I remember (though I admit it has been about 10 years). Sturgeon’s tie-in might not be the apex of his writing career, but it makes an interesting footnote to his body of work.

Some quotes from the novel:

“No wonder they call this the land of opportunity. They’ll take anything that isn’t bolted down!”

“He drove the moon down while fatigue sat on his back like a gigantic rucksack with the devil perched on it, dropping one-ounce weights into it, one per second.”

“Maybe it’s mor’ls an’ maybe it’s just easier. Fella tells the truth all the time, he don’t have to remember what it was he said”

"Amos Flagg - High Gun" by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams) (Gold Medal, 1965)

Sheriff Amos Flagg returns with his outlaw father, Gunner, and his extraordinary cat, El Cazador the Hunter, in Amos Flagg – High Gun. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1965, this novel opens with the lingering question of whether or not Gunner has truly reformed. When Gunner takes off for Indian Country with a newspaperman from the East, Amos begins to suspect his old man is up to no good. And when he hears rumor of gunmen corralling on the outskirts Sangaree County, Amos knows that Gunner must be involved somehow.

Written under the penname “Clay Randall,” Clifton Adams seems to have hit his stride with Amos Flagg – High Gun. It’s an easygoing and very entertaining book to read, with more humor than the first book, Lawman. I actually enjoyed this one even more than Lawman. The plot was more original, and this time around Adams gives more space in the book to Gunner. His goodhearted-but-crooked logic was charming and didn’t get old. If this had been made into a movie, Walter Brennan would have been perfect for the role.

It’s interesting to compare this to Adams’ early Westerns. The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado were books with tormented characters in a world as harsh as the desert landscape. Written nearly fifteen years later, High Gun has a patience, maturity, and humor that seems to come with experience. The cast of characters is fully formed, and Adams relishes their individual sensibilities and allows them the time and space to be themselves.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“For a moment his hope turned as cold as the void in his gut.”

“Don’t try to pass your misery on to others. Likely they had troubles enough of their own.”

“The young man’s face was unnaturally dark with the kind of dirt that a man didn’t pick up in any common way over an ordinary span of time. This was dirt of months and years, mingled with the smoke of a thousand hurried campfires. It was ground into the skin, into the pores. It lent depth and hardness to the scarlike lines about his mouth and eyes. It gave his face a slablike, masklike appearance. Amos had seen the look many times before, the look of an outlaw on the run.”

“El Cazador was a great believer in the philosophy of passivity. He sighed a cat sigh, yawned, stretched, and settled again for sleep.”

This was reprinted by Belmont Tower Books in 1973, and I have a copy of that edition, as well. The pagination is the same, just a different cover. I like both, so I’m including a scan of it below, as well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Lawman" by Clay Randall (Clifton Adams) (Gold Medal, 1964)

As Sheriff of Academy, Texas, it is Amos Flagg’s job to keep the drunks orderly and prevent the cattle drovers from shooting up the town. But when his estranged, outlaw father, Gunner, shows up in town with two gunmen, Amos knows it is only time before the trouble begins. And when it does, he will have to choose between family and standing up for the law he swore to protect.

Clay Randall was a penname used by Clifton Adams, who wrote many classic crime and Western novels including the Gold Medal classics The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado. Randall’s series character was named Amos Flagg, and his first appearance was in Lawman (originally published by Gold Medal in 1964).

Betrayal and manipulation run deep in Academy, and Randall uses the plot design as a framework for a much deeper, more complex web of characters and conflicts. Even at the novel’s end, Randall smartly refrains from tying up all the loose ends. It not only leaves the reader eagerly awaiting the sequel, but it also stays true to the characters and their emotions.

Randall writes with a hardboiled style – tough and gritty prose, and with characters that are short on speech and fast on the draw. But amidst all of this, Randall surprised me with the most unexpected character: El Cazador, The Hunter – Amos Flagg’s pet cat. As resilient, resourceful, and reserved as his owner, El Cazador appears every so often, sometimes getting in on the action, sometimes just getting in the way, and other times keenly observing the action take place, occasionally even taking over the narration for a few paragraphs. I’ve never been a fan of what you might call “cat books,” but Randall pulled off El Cazador wonderfully, never over doing it, and always with the deftest, most delicate sense of humor.

After Lawman, Amoss Flagg appeared in five more books (all published by Gold Medal) before the author’s death in 1971: Amos Flagg – High Gun (1965); Amos Flagg Rides Out (1967); Amos Flagg – Bushwhacked (1967); Amos Flagg Has His Day (1968); and Amos Flagg – Showdown (1969). For more information, please check out the Clay Randall Checklist at Mystery File.

As is tradition on Pulp Serenade, some quotes from the book:

“A reddish, nightmarish mist swirled inside the bank. The floor had a tendency to tilt unexpectedly. The walls retreated and advanced in a startling fashion. German Hoyt loomed bigger than life, like some huge bear with one unraised arm, one dagger-studded paw ready to stab, crush, kill.”

“One thing about outlawing, it taught a man to stay limber. He couldn’t stop thinking or scheming – if he did he was done for.”

“Amos’s grin held all the mirth of a death mask.”

“What was peace, anyway, but a great silence, a void, an emptiness? Peace was a negative thing, an absence of disturbance. A vacuum. And one of the first things you learned, as soon as you were old enough to enter a schoolhouse – right along with the history of the Texas Republic and rules for spelling – was that nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Desert Stake-Out" by Harry Whittington (Gold Medal, 1961)

Harry Whittington writes first pages like time bombs. Once the clock starts, there’s no stopping until it is all over. He hurls you headfirst into the story, tossing you in with a cast of severe characters already on their last leg even before the eleventh hour has begun. And when that inevitable moment comes, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll see their most unsavory sides. Especially in his Westerns, as grimy and sweaty as they come, the sun bakes the humanity out of Whittington’s characters: out there in the barren landscape, there’s not much they can hide, even from themselves. Which is why Whittington’s characters are probably so tormented.

Desert Stake-Out, published in 1961, is as tough, lean, and gritty as any of his other Gold Medal Crime novels. Blade Merrick, a freelance driver for the military, is traveling through Apache territory to deliver medicine. Along the way, he rescues a group of people from the Apaches, and they seek shelter at the Patchee Wells water hole, the only salvation in the Arizona badlands. However, things don’t go as planned. Blade’s new companions threaten to kill him if he doesn’t turn around and forget about delivering the medicine. But Blade has his own ulterior motives, and he’s not so easily deterred.

A cinematically paced novel, once the story begins, Whittington doesn’t leave his characters, not for a second. No narrative ellipses, no digressions, tangents or flashbacks. If you read the book cover to cover, you can really appreciate Whittington’s streamlined plotting. Desert Stake-Out doesn’t just flow, it's torrential.

More than just succinct, Whittington’s writing is as nuanced as it is terse. His characters are always well-rounded and compelling, and they aren’t your average sagebrush clichés, either. Psychological complexity was one of Whittington’s strengths. With ample emotional and physical scars weighing down on him, Blade rises above the archetype of the honorable drifter. And despite his dark impulses, he actually turns out to be one of Whittington’s more admirable characters, which is a nice surprise considering the author’s penchant for amoral protagonists.

Desert Stake-Out stands out amidst Whittington’s already outstanding body of work as one of his best.

As always, a few excerpts from the book:

“It’s hell, Mary Beth, he thought. It’s a grim hot hell when you can’t forget.”

“He wanted to get drunk; she was a poison in his bloodstream and he had to drink her out.”

“Somewhere in the dark there was a lonely cry, and no matter how long you’d been out here, sometimes it was hard to convince yourself it was the crying of the wind.”

“Perch struck against the wall, flat, and the sound was like a goatskin tight with water dropped on stones.”

"Yellowleg" by A.S. Fleischman (Gold Medal, 1960)

The Civil War has been over for many years, and a prospective bank robbery has forged a bond between former enemies. There are the two Rebels – the anxious gunhand Billy and his older mentor Turk – and the Yankee, a mysterious man named Yellowleg who is short on words and quick on the draw. As they enter Gila City, it is clear the group has divergent motives: Turk has his eye on the money, while Billy is keen on the dance hall girl Kit, and Yellowleg has his sights on revenge for someone who nearly scalped him during the war.

Like the best of A.S. Fleischman’s Gold Medal novels (such as the South Seas thrillers Malay Woman and Danger in Paradise), Yellowleg’s driving plot quickly veers off the conventional path and goes in unexpected directions, repeatedly adding new twists to the story and its characters. What begins as a heist story morphs into a revenge quest, and Fleischman takes the narrative on yet another detour with Kit and her son, Mead. Such surprises keep the story fresh and engaging, but most importantly they come off as natural evolutions and never seem forced or contrived.

Fleischman takes a similar approach to his characters, putting distinctive spins on Western archetypes. Kit seems particularly modern. She’s a single mother who began working in a dance hall after her husband was killed during an Indian attack. Despite the lurid rumors spread by the townsfolk, Kit is not, and never was, a “parlor girl.” Strong and self-reliant, she never pities herself or expresses any shame about the life she was forced to take. And unlike “Mike,” the gun-toting female from W.R. Burnett’s Stretch Dawson, Kit doesn’t throw away her independence once a man forcefully takes her into his arms. It was refreshing to see a feminine character that couldn’t be won over by masculine strength or sexuality.

In 1961, the year after Yellowleg was published, Fleischman adapted his own book to the screen as The Deadly Companions. It was the first film by a young man who would go on to become a luminary in film history: Sam Peckinpah. Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith played the lead roles, and I thought it was a terrific adaptation that really captured the spirit of the book. I've posted the video below, or you can watch it for free on

As always, a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Maybe the trouble with revenge was the day you caught up with it.”

“Her beauty struck him as a fragile, hopeless thing; out of place and unexpected in a dried-up little New Mexico town. It reminded him of the bloom of mountain cactus which opened its petals for a brief display in the night and then withered and browned in the next day’s heat.”

“Their shadows traveled close underfoot, like timid reflections.”

“There was no pain, only the memory of it, and the fear of it, but it kept him from squeezing the trigger.”

“But a man needs something to live for, even if it’s just to kill another man.”

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Gunswift" by T.V. Olsen (Gold Medal, 1960)

T.V. Olsen’s Gunswift gets off to a fast and tense start in media res as Owen Rutledge and Abner have already found the man they are looking for, Garvey. He was part of the notorious Tierney’s Raiders – a band of treacherous rebels left over from the Civil War – who murdered Owen’s family. As Owen and Abner track down the last remaining members, Sykes, and Tierney himself, they find themselves caught in the midst of a vicious land war that threatens to jeopardize their mission.

Published in 1960, Gunswift is equal parts amateur private detective story and revenge mission, all told in a post-Civil War Western setting. These two distinct styles show not only the strong connections between the Western and the Crime novel, but also how pliant and diversified the Western genre can be.

Tightly plotted with strong characters and historical details, Gunswift is solid Western entertainment. Olsen, whose family is Norwegian, was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin on April 25, 1932. And while he would spend most of his life in his hometown, Olsen’s redolent eye for location and historical atmosphere is impressive. Whether it is the opening fight scene set on a mountain of rotting slate, trailing one’s horse across a canyon’s thin ledge, or a pitch-black mountain shootout, Olsen’s dynamic use of geography enhances the blistering action scenes.

Olsen’s West is also assembled from a diverse group of characters from all parts of the US – north and south, east and west – and from both sides of the Civil War. Much of the personal drama that made the story so compelling had to do with the lingering politics of the war, and how the characters negotiated new relationships where shortly before there was open hostility. Olsen doesn’t stand on a soap box and moralize about politics, nor does he easily demonize or heroicize any of his characters for the sides they chose. Instead, he’s much more interested in the human element and the ethical conflicts they have to work out for themselves.

A prolific novelist, Olsen would eventually write a total of twenty one novels for the Gold Medal imprint including A Killer is Waiting, A Man Called Brazos, A Man Named Yuma, Blizzard Pass, Blood Rage, Bonner's Stallion, Brand of the Star, The Burning Sky, Canyon of the Gun, Day of the Buzzard, The Golden Change, Gunswift, The Hard Man, High Lawless, Lonesome Gun, McGivern, Ramrod Rider, Red is the River, Run to the Mountain, Savage Sierra, and Under the Gun. Theodore V. Olsen passed away July 13, 1993 at the age of 61.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Strange how revenge thoughts grew to habit so dulled that a man could not yet be aware of the sharp exultance of journey’s end. As if its end were the end of everything…”

“The wind rattled skeletons of dead brush against the stable wall. Owen shivered.”
“Desperately seeking anew, he’d followed the American dream that was moving westward, and found only a brawling, dog-eat-dog frontier.”

“But a man always has to go back. Because he’s part of it, boy, part of the human race. The whole brawling slew of it, good or bad.”

"Texas Fever" by Donald Hamilton (Gold Medal, 1960)

Donald Hamilton is best known for his series character Matt Helm, a government secret agent that would ultimately appear in print in 27 books, all published under the Gold Medal imprint. (A 28th was written but, as of now, remains unpublished.) In 1960, the same year that that Hamilton christened Matt Helm with Death of a Citizen, he also published a Western novel for Gold Medal that seems to have fallen off the radar since its publication: Texas Fever. An unjustly overlooked part of Hamilton’s bibliography, it is first-class entertainment written with absorbing characters and a zestful plot.

Texas Fever is about Chuck McAuliffe, a young man on a cattle drive with his brother, Dave, and their father, Jesse. They plan on taking the cattle into Kansas and selling them for a hefty profit – that is, if they can avoid the rustlers and slip past The Quarantine, which is set on keeping Texas longhorns out of Kansas for fear of spreading disease. Along the trail they meet up with Amanda Netherton and her Papa who was badly wounded in a skirmish with some bushwhackers. Chuck is immediately taken by Amanda’s beauty, but Jesse has his own lingering suspicions about the duo and their intentions.

Western book reviewer Nelson Nye gave Texas Fever a short but positive mention in The New York Times when it was first released. He wrote that, “This story is well told....and it's a corker, gents, done up in full color.”

Hamilton writes the story with a close third-person, and he does a great job capturing the mindset of his main character, the angry young man Chuck McAuliffe. Too young to fight alongside his father and brother in the Civil War, Chuck was left behind to single-handedly take care of the house, the ranch, and his mother. When the war ended, an unspoken gulf separated the men in the family – neither could appreciate the sacrifices and grief the other went through. This family history becomes a strong current running throughout Texas Fever.

At times, the novel seems like a coming of age story, at others a revenge saga, and at others a rousing adventure yarn set on the fabled cattle trails leading north from Texas to Abilene. Hamilton writes with a combination of energy and lyricism – there’s a driving force behind his plot, but also a patience and care for his characters and their development. I like what Hamilton was doing with the Western genre and I’m looking forward to reading his other Gold Medal Westerns, which include Smoky Valley, the anthology Iron Men and Silver Stars (review coming soon), and reprints of the Dell books Mad River and The Two-Shoot Gun (originally called The Man From Santa Clara).

Some of Donald Hamilton’s wisdom from the book:

“Just remember one thing…when you’re young you bleed easily, but you heal quickly.”

“When a man who's been successful all his life suddenly finds everything going bad that he sets his hand to…Well, after a while, I reckon, something kind of snaps inside him.”

“First I will contemplate the fact that small oblivion can be found in large bottles, and large oblivion in small ones. There must be a philosophical truth involved, somewhere.”