Sunday, December 31, 2017

Westerns that I Read in 2017

Presented in the order that I read them starting with Harry Whittington and finishing with Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins this week.

Cross the Red Creek by Harry Whittington - A fast paced and tightly plotted gem from Whittington, a writer whose ability to crank out quick novels while telling a great story with fascinating characters and dialog continues to amaze me. "Cross the Red Creek" tells the tale of Jim Gilmore, a young married man looking for a new place to settle, who is first falsely accused of a bank robbery, then becomes the target of a conspiracy to cover up other criminal activity in the town. The female characters in the novel are especially well drawn, with two dissatisfied wives and a young widower bringing an interesting perspective to the narrative, which is essentially a crime story that takes place in the Old West.

The Way Of The West by L.J. Martin - Highly amusing story about a tenderfoot's initiation to driving cattle. Mr Martin is a master of the humorous simile; laughing out loud a several times.

Guild (Leo Guild, #1) by Ed Gorman - Gorman is a terrific writer and Guild does not disappoint. This short novel, the first in a four book series telling the tales of hard-boiled bounty hunter Leo Guild, is fast paced and brimming with memorable characters and dialogue. Gorman's descriptive prose resides in that sweet spot between terse and tedious, telling the reader just what you need to know without dragging down the snappy pacing.

Texas Fever by Donald Hamilton - A terrific coming of age tale that tells the story of a troubled cattle drive and the young man who has to come to terms with the hardships and injustices imposed by a gang of brutal bushwhackers, a devious and doomed femme fatale, and rampant discrimination against his crew of former confederate soldiers. Hamilton brilliantly writes character interactions in ways that grow and change the characters in unexpected ways, making this far more than a typical western action novel.

Hidden Blood by W.C. Tuttle - Hashknife and Sleepy find themselves caught up in an adventure involving border drug smuggling. I was expecting more of a lightweight and comedic work, like a Robert E. Howard "Breckenridge Elkins" story, however the story and the characters are dense and complex, and the humor was understated and not particularly goofy at all. A very solid and enjoyable mystery with plenty of action and just the right amount of humor.

Outrage at Blanco by Bill Crider - A paging turning treasure masterfully paced and plotted with several memorable characters and dialog that rings true throughout. Loved the unlikely alliance between the victimized woman and the dying old man, a relationship that spoke to the times and events in life that motivate us to do what we feel are the right things, as a matter of justice, or maybe vengeance, or as a last hurrah before heading to that big corral in the sky. A highly satisfying story that grabs you early and never lets go. Highly recommended for crime and/or western readers that don't mind adult themes and violence.

Glory Dust by Robert Vaughan  - This is the first book I've read by the prolific Mr.Vaughan, who clearly knows how to plot and tell a great story. The author imbues the fast paced revenge story with a cast of interesting characters and enough surprises and twists to keep the story interesting and page-turningly propulsive.

Gun Feud by W.C. Tuttle - Bookkeeper Orville Woodruff receives a 15 year old letter indicating that he is the heir to a lost gold mine in Arizona. He quits his job and travels to the location where he meets the lovely Norma and crime-solving cowboys Micky and Spook. Tuttle weaves a complex plot with kidnappers, cattle rustlers, Mexican bandits, gold mines, and a wealth of interesting characters. A fun read with a hard-boiled mystery plot and plenty of humorous touches, sort of a cozy cowboy mystery.

End of the Gun by H.A. DeRosso - A dark novel telling the story of an ex-convict mustang wrangler, consumed by depression and anger bordering on psychotic, who battles everyone - his partners, ranchers, outlaws, in a desperate fight for redemption and to start a new life on the right side of the law. Things are complicated even more by two women that fall for him, as they somehow disregard his erratic temper and violent nature. Not a particularly good effort from a writer whose other works I have enjoyed.

Death Ground (Leo Guild, #2) by Ed Gorman - I like this second book in the Guild series as much as the first. Gorman doesn't fool around with his prose or plots, no wasted words or subplots, just a propulsive and well told story that kept me enthralled from beginning to end.

The Shadow Riders by Louis L'Amour - A solid traditional Western that doesn't really stand out from some of L'Amour's best work. The story focuses mostly on the two Traven brothers, although Happy Jack and the heroic Kate Connery were probably the more interesting characters. The novel doesn't waste anytime getting into the story and then continues the fast pace to a satisfying climax and a perhaps somewhat abrupt ending.

Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale - An outstanding novella with breakneck pacing and a linear plot that brims with profane and colorful dialogue, and some thought-provoking rumination on racism. A very fun and entertaining read from start to finish.

Blood Trail by John Legg - A solid comic-of-age and revenge tale telling the story of a young farmer boy struggling to keep his family intact after their parents and older brother are killed, and then his surprising transformation into a brutal bounty hunter, out for vengeance against those who wronged him, or those who corrupted his younger brother. The novel drags a bit in the middle where the character wanders around lost and hungry for way too long, then picks up steam when he is taken in and well trained by a noble Native American bounty hunter.

Bandera Pass by L.J. Washburn - A top notch Texas Ranger tale built around the relationship of a grizzled veteran Ranger and his likable young partner on the trail of a dangerous band of criminals that are hiding out in the vicinity of Bandera. The intertwined story of the local sheriff, his outlaw brother, and his naive daughter help drive the fast moving plot. A solid and very traditional western with no offensive language or situations. A book that should appeal to a wide range of readers.

Saddle the Storm by Harry Whittington - An ambitious novel that follows three main narratives, a young couple in a rocky marriage, a bible-thumping rancher who feels that he has been spurned, and a mentally challenged boy who's actions are an enigma. All of the action takes place during one hot Independence Day celebration in a small Texas town where Whittington effectively expands and merges the narratives into a cohesive story of love, obligation, betrayal, hatred and violence. This may have been Whittington's attempt to write something more substantial than his excellent genre focused Crime and Western books, his Great American Novel perhaps, and although it looks like a traditional Western it is so very much more.

Valley of Wild Horses by Zane Grey - Great adventure, maybe a little slow moving, with terrific descriptive prose and very likable protagonist in young cowboy Panhandle Smith. Grey's descriptions of the valley with the thousands of wild horse made me feel like I was there, and sometimes made me wish that I was.

Trouble Rides Tall by Harry Whittington - Another tightly plotted Western from Whittington. Marshall Bryant Shafter was paid good money to clean up a lawless town, now that he's succeeded he has become expendable. As the town bosses conspire to get rid of him he relentlessly pursues the killer of a saloon girl, a crime that no one seems interested in solving. The novel works well as a dark study of an aging gunslinger who tires of his role of cleaning up troubled towns, and as a whodunit mystery that keeps you guessing until the explosive ending.

True Grit by Charles Portis - A lean and exciting tale, perfectly paced, with two of the most memorable fictional characters that I've become acquainted with in Marshall Rooster Cogburn and the smart and stubborn Mattie Ross. The novel is nearly flawless.

Longarm and the Deadly Lover (Longarm, #334) by Tabor Evans - Take a cozy whodunit plot, wrap it in a violent Old West setting, and throw in a couple of awkward sex scenes. Nothing wrong with that. A quick and entertaining read from author Gary McCarthy, one of the many respectable writers that make up the Tabor Evans pen name.

Killer Lion (Bonanza) by Steve Frazee - I would have really loved this book if I had read it when I was 12 years old. Author Steve Frazee was a prolific writer of Westerns, several of which have been made into films, and also many TV tie-in novels. He was an excellent choice to write the Bonanza books, giving them the authenticity of the Old West while capturing the essence of the beloved Cartwright family members. The novel tells the story of kind-hearted Hoss who takes in an orphaned Mountain Lion cub only to find it hopelessly dependent upon him. Unable to rid himself of the friendly cub, Hoss finds himself in a predicament when local ranchers organize a Mountain Lion hunt to avenge a mysterious killing. All in all an enjoyable, albeit juvenile, book that kept me entertained and feeling nostalgic.

The Last Trail Drive (The Gunsmith, #342) by J.R. Roberts - Good entry in the Gunsmith series with Clint Adams helping an old friend on a sabotaged trail drive. The Gunsmith books are consistently entertaining.

Morgan by Frank Roderus - The novel tells the story of Morgan, an old man who reminisces about his life in the post Civil War American West. The story is told chronologically starting when Morgan was orphaned at 15 years old as he begins a journey west to find gold, but finds that life gets in the way. The novel is a well told coming-of-age tale that then proceeds to tell Morgan's story as he grows old and the Old West, once wild and untamed becomes more advanced and civilized before his eyes. Morgan is not infallible and makes some egregious and unsavory mistakes during his long life. This is probably true of most of us. Frank Roderus, an old man himself, passed away in 2015 not long after this book was published making it even more poignant in my opinion.

Ambush on the Mesa by Gordon D. Shirreffs - A superb Western noir that tells the story of a crew of soldiers and a pair of women who are holed up in some ancient abandoned cliff dwellings without food and surrounded by blood thirsty Apaches. The dramas unfolding within the doomed prey run the gamut of human emotions - rage, jealousy, greed, and deception - with bullies, cowards, leaders, and lunatics squaring off in a desperate battle for survival. An exceedingly dark and violent novel that kept me riveted throughout. I'm going to be seeking out more of this largely forgotten authors work.

The Quick and the Dead by Louis L'Amour - The short novel starts at a furious pace and doesn’t let up. Tells the story of the McKaskel family’s progression from victimized Easterners into self-sufficient pioneers, aided by an experienced and fearsome wanderer, all while waged in a deadly struggle against a gang of vicious outlaws. Plenty of action and a no-frills plot make this one a real page-turner.

Cole by C.J. Petit - The self-published novel from C.J. Petit is a very traditional and largely character driven Western with lots of dialogue and limited descriptive prose. This makes for for an enjoyable and easy read, where the good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, and there is no objectionable content to be found. Petit is a natural storyteller and keeps the novel progressing at a solid pace to a happy, albeit somewhat cliche conclusion. The chapter detailing the hostage transfer and shootout in the open field was exceptionally well-written.

Crow Bait by Robert J. Randisi - Randisi is a throwback to the pulp writers of old - having published over 500 novels with more than 400 of them in the Gunsmith Western series. He knows how to write entertaining books and this is no exception. The short novel opens with the protagonist beaten and left to die in the desert, saved only by finding a dilapidated horse that he names "Crow Bait". What follows is essentially a revenge novel, with several interesting characters and some unexpected situations. A quick and entertaining read.

The Legend of Caleb York (Caleb York #1) by Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins - I was half expecting Mike Hammer in the Wild West, but this is far better. Caleb York is a much different character, more like Shane than Hammer. Spillane always had the chops for storytelling and colorful dialogue, and I think that Max Allan Collins did a marvelous job tightening up the narrative and the plotting to produce a novel that is more than the sum of it's parts. The hard-boiled Westerns of the 50s and 60s are one of my favorite eras for fiction, and this novel fits in well with the best of them.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: The Legend of Caleb York

The Legend of Caleb York The Legend of Caleb York by Mickey Spillane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was half expecting Mike Hammer in the Wild West, but this is far better. Caleb York is a much different character, more like Shane than Hammer. Spillane always had the chops for storytelling and colorful prose, and I think that Max Allan Collins did a marvelous job tightening up the narrative and the plotting to produce a novel that is more than the sum of it's parts. The hard-boiled Westerns of the 50s and 60s are one of my favorite eras for fiction, and this novel fits in well with the best of them.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Hunter at Large

Hunter at Large Hunter at Large by Thomas B. Dewey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another fine character driven noir from Dewey, this time telling the story of a cop solving the mystery of his wife's murder as he ventures across the county on the trail of the killers. The emphasis here is on the exceptionally well drawn characters and their true and vivid dialogue. The plotting holds together well, although the climax at the end seems a bit rushed. One of those books that seem like it would make a great movie. This novel is included in the The Noir Novel MEGAPACK ™: 4 Great Crime Novels for a mere $0.99 and hopefully can find a well deserved larger audience.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Needles of Death

Needles of Death Needles of Death by Paul Edwards
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Manning Lee Stokes wrote paperback pulp fiction using many pseudonyms in the adventure/espionage genres, of which this novel is a good example. John Eagle, possessing the strength and brutality of a Scotsman, and the stealth and speed of an Apache, is recruited by a secret government spy agency known as Expeditors, to destroy a deadly Chinese weapon that threatens the security of the world. Most of the novel takes place in the Gobi desert in Asia where John Eagle battles marauding bandits, Mongols, and Chinese soldiers aided only by an attractive Mongol woman and her brother, a spy who has been captured. Eagle is equipped with a large arsenal of spy gadgets, much like James Bond, and puts them to good use. Non-stop action drives the linear plot at a fast pace to an exciting conclusion. I came across the first five books in this series, three of which are written by Stokes, and am looking forward to reading them.

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