Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Wolf's Breed by Harris Dickson


FRANCE—In the old world and in the new! The France of romance and glory under Henry of Navarre; of pride and glitter under Louis XIV, in whose reign was builded, under the silver lilies, that empire—Louisiana—in the vague, dim valley of the Mississippi across the sea: these are the scenes wherein this drama shall be played. Through these times shall run the tale which follows. Times when a man's good sword was ever his truest friend, when he who fought best commanded most respect. It was the era of lusty men——the weak went to the wall.

King and courtier; soldier and diplomat; lass and lady; these are the people with whom this story deals. If, therefore, you find brave fighting and swords hanging too loosely in their sheaths; if honor clings round an empty shadow and the women seem more fair than honest, I pray you remember when these things did happen, who were the actors, and the stage whereon they played.

As we can tell from that opening salvo this novel is different than our standard western fare. If we include Louis Lamour’s lovely designation of “Frontier” novel rather than the more limiting label of “Western” more such intriguing gems from the early days East of the Mississippi come to light.

This 1901 novel bears the full title of The Black Wolf's Breed A Story of France in the Old World and the New, happening in the Reign of Louis XIV. Our hero is a hardy frontiersman of French descent who serves under the governor of the Louisiana Territory, Bienville. We venture into the wilderness of Louisiana and Mississippi just after LaSalle made his voyage down the Mississippi River.

We are treated to woodland warfare with Choctaws by our hero’s side, he is sent on a secret mission to the courts of France, engages in duels, crosses back across the Atlantic aboard a privateer to engage in yet more derring do with battles between the French and Spanish along the Florida Coast all with “painted savages” in the midst.

It is a novel of its time, and its age shows but there is a verve to it.

A few asides from our hero give more of the flavor.

“A still tongue, a clear head and a sharp blade are the tools of Fortune."

The pert little lads who idled about the hall began to make sport of me concerning my dress, and laughed greatly at their own wit. I paid no heed to their foolish gibes, there being no man among them.”

“We men of the forest accustomed to the rough ways of a camp, and looking not for insult, are slow to anger.”

"Spit the thief, run him through," came from one of those behind—for the rear guard, beyond the reach of steel, was ever loud and brave.

Youth and health do not long lie idle.

What say you to an adventure?"

Two fools like ourselves might perchance stumble blindly upon what a wise man would overlook,"

"Ah! a soldier; so interesting in these stupid times, when men are little but women differently dressed.

He approached Madame at the table with a semblance of that swagger affected by the weakling in presence of women.

"M. Jerome has favored us, you know—we have no drones here," she went on pleasantly, "and it is the rule at Sceaux that all must join our merriment."

While not quite as strong as the best of Rafael Sabatini or Dumas in good translation, it was mighty pleasing to this reader to encounter the unsheathed sword derring do of the classic swashbuckler with a hale and hearty frontiersman bearing the blade.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Fort Starvation by Frank Gruber


Fedderson and Vickers exchanged glances. Vickers said, “He don’t scare me.”

Fedderson nodded thoughtfully, “He don’t seem scared either.”

This one is a bit of a puzzle for me. The novel shows up as a stellar achievement in the genre on at least two lists, one by Jon Lewis and the other from Jon Tuska. Both men with a deep knowledge of the Western and who’s tastes have steered me well more often than not but…this choice mystifies me.

We have a tale of vengeance, years long searches and confrontation—standard fare for many a fine Western but here the author seems practically bored with his own plot.

Entire battles are dispensed with in cast-off sentences, important interactions between characters are often told after the fact in a “They met and had words, now let’s move on” sense.

This is my first from Gruber, who was rather prolific, and I would love to think he has better offerings.

One of the rare occasions when I simply do not understand the appeal.

The Gruber fans out there are welcome to suggest the “best” title and I’ll make another go.

If no suggestions, I’ll steer clear and I suggest the same here. There are far better novels than this casually indifferent affair.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Head of the Mountain by Ernest Haycox


“Pain is an awful thing,” she said.

“After it goes away a curtain comes down and you can’t bring back how bad it was. Otherwise we’d all be cowards.”

This slim novel from a master of the genre was originally serialized in 1950-51 in the pages of Esquire magazine. You’ll find Haycox’s usual full-blooded men, well-drawn women in this tale of theft along a stage line in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve always been an admirer of Haycox and find his “man in the elements” passages particularly engaging. His blizzard sequence in the excellent Bugles in the Afternoon comes immediately to mind, only adventure-write Alistair MacLean seems to match the man for describing the harshness of cold weather.

As usual his literary scoutcraft is on hand…

“Rawson spotted the man’s tracks as soon as he came upon them for with him, as with any riding man, the day and its changes was a book of great interest, whose sometimes cryptic passages  challenged his ability to understand them.”

With all this praise for Haycox himself, I’ll admit I found this novel hard going even with the brief page count. In part that may be due to the decision by Bantam Paperbacks to format it without chapters or breaks between switches in time, locale, or scene. The reader is often flowing along nicely and then we must bring ourselves out of the story to settle ourselves into new terrain.

Likely a far better book if formatted with care.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Latigo by Frank O’Rourke


“I want you to see the town,” Addis said. “You’ll feel more at home tomorrow.”
“We can’t see much at night.”

“You can see it all,” Addis said mildly. “You’ve got to smell a strange town, feel it in your bones; hear the dogs bark, count the saloons and the stores, listen to the wind on the street and notice the pickle barrel on the depot platform.”

“I can see it all tomorrow,” he said.

“No,” Addis said. “You’ve got to look at a town like you judge a woman. Appearance is mostly what she wants you to see in her. And towns are like women. You’ve got to look underneath, look for the character when you meet a woman. Not her face or her size. You see what you think is in the woman. If you see just the body, the face, you see nothing. And a town is like a woman.”

I am an unabashed Frank O’Rourke fan. He novel The Last Chance [also reviewed on this blog] is easily in my top ten favorite Western novels.

He offers easy unforced authenticity in his action, but it is his facile offhand remarks and insights into character that mark his breed. Small vignettes like the above that give much of his work a mature flavor that raises it above the mere formulaic shoot ‘em up.

He allows these little homilies to inform who each character is, often allowing us to find the size of them through a single act, remark, thought or gesture.

Upon witnessing a soiled dove falling in the street…

“Jim do you think we should have helped?”

“Her?”

“She was in the mud. Did you see the bruises on her legs?”

“You’ve got a quick eye, Tom.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Ellington said.

“I know it…but she went back for more.”

“But why, Jim?”

Addis bit off the tip of a wrinkled cigar, licked the dry outer leaf, and scratched a match on the rosetted neck of the wooden horse guarding the harness shop door.

“Human nature, Tom. Think she’d be in that dive if she didn’t enjoy the life? She grew up, maybe she sang in a choir like that one over yonder. Whatever happened, she didn’t say no. She had a man, some more men, she went on the town. She was in the mud tonight, she’ll be in the mud again. You can’t change people, Tom. That’s why I never interfere.”

O’Rourke’s observations remind me of John D. MacDonald’s wry commentary found in his late 50’s and early 60’s work. And the MacDonald comparison is apt, as this novel plays more as a noir tale than a strict oater.

While not O’Rourke’s best, still mighty mighty strong.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday by David Corbett


If there is one thing I’ve gathered from experience, whether during the war or at Mother’s sickbed or out here in the railheads and cow towns, it is that there is nothing to distinguish a good life from a bad life, there is just life, and it must be lived. I cannot help at times but wonder if your Romanist faith is not a kind of armor against the terrible ambiguities of a life lived simply, fully, honestly, without pretense of nobility or purpose. When I lingered near death, and felt the immanent, infinite coldness entering my core, I found no solace whatsoever in pieties. Rather, what comfort came to me arrived solely through the relentless will to defy the odds and continue the meager reckless enterprise of my existence.

This novel is one curious amalgamation of neo-Western, court procedural, treatise on art forgery, historical reconstruction and Lee Child style shoot ‘em up.

Corbett clearly has skill and the research is top-notch but, for this reader, not all elements hold water, I found the extended action set-pieces a bit tedious, akin to reading a description of a John Wick film rather than the simple pleasure of viewing one.

A novel composed with such skill does not deserve a simple cast-off review and I wager mileage will vary for other readers, but while briskly paced I found it harder and harder to maintain interest as it went along.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry


Though he had always been a careful planner, life on the frontier had long ago convinced him of the fragility of plans. The truth was, most plans did fail, to one degree or another, for one reason or another. He had survived as a Ranger because he was quick to respond to what he had actually found, not because his planning was infallible.

What can be said of a book that is likely familiar to most?

It can be wagered that many know it by reputation or from viewing of many of its TV incarnations.
It would be a shame if that passing familiarity were all that were tasted as a deep dive into the hundreds of pages of this novel pays rewards in ways that the moving image cannot, no matter how well that image is limned.

Let’s take one scene, from both, one that likely most viewers are familiar with, the river crossing that ends in the tragic death of a young Irish cowboy by multiple snakebite.

Call knelt by the boy, helpless to do one thing for him. It was the worst luck — to come all the way from Ireland and then ride into a swarm of water moccasins. 

Call said nothing. The boy’s age had nothing to do with what had happened, of course; even an experienced man, riding into such a mess of snakes, wouldn’t have survived. He himself might not have, and he had never worried about snakes. It only went to show what he already knew, which was that there were more dangers in life than even the sharpest training could anticipate. Allen O’Brien should waste no time on guilt, for a boy could die in Ireland as readily as elsewhere, however safe it might appear.

‘It seems too quick,’ he said. ‘It seems very quick, just to ride off and leave the boy. He was the babe of our family,’ he added. 

‘If we was in town we’d have a fine funeral,’ Augustus said. ‘But as you can see, we ain’t in town. There’s nothing you can do but kick your horse.’ 

The novel has a depth that strikes one as more than mere entertainment. Truly one for the ages.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

City of Widows by Loren D. Estleman


I turned in time to see the last of perhaps a dozen women step off the boardwalk on the other side of the street and turn in the direction of the mission. They were dressed all in black from bonnets to shoes, their black hems dragging like crows’ wings in the dust of the street. One or two fingered rosaries; the rest clutched their shawls at the throat and stared straight ahead as they walked, moving with a kind of bicycling gait that raised a yellow plume in their wake. The group swept along like some low-hanging cloud and seemed to drain the life from everything it passed.

One of Estelman’s long-running Page Murdock series which, like Max Allan Collins’ PI Nate Heller series, places a fictional protagonist in the midst of well-researched actual events and personages.

Estleman has been around a long time and I’ll admit there is some of his work that strikes me cold while professional and at others, this being one of them, he strikes me as one of the best in the genre.
This is a mighty entertaining genre Western well above the standard formulaic fare.

I can offer no better praise than the blurb on the cover of the paperback copy from Elmore “Dutch” Leonard himself.

“I was going to see how City of Widows opens and read 55 pages. It’s a honey.”

It is indeed.

The Black Wolf's Breed by Harris Dickson

FRANCE—In the old world and in the new! The France of romance and glory under Henry of Navarre; of pride and glitter under Louis XIV, in w...