RARA-AVIS: One southwest, one southwestern

From: William Denton ( buff@pobox.com)
Date: 19 Apr 2004

I mentioned I was reading WILD TOWN (1957) by Jim Thompson. It's set in Ragtown, in west Texas, about an hour's drive from Westex City, during oil boom years in the 1910s or 1920s. Thompson was born in 1906 and lived in Texas during those years. His father worked as a sheriff, and Thompson hopped bells in hotels, gambled, drank, took drugs, and had a wild time. He had a hell of a life--read about it if you can. (He and Chandler were in the Texas oilfields at the same time, but Chandler was an executive who was drinking too much.)

For all his experience, not a lot of colour comes through in the book. It could have been set in any open city through to the 1960s or 1970s, and there's not much sense of Texas. There must be more of that in his autobiographical books like BAD BOY (1953).

The book's tight in on a handful of people who are right at home in a Thompson novel: a slightly dopey ex-con working as a hotel dick; the aged wheelchair-bound hotel owner; his sexpot young wife; a repressed schoolmarm; and sheriff Lou Ford, a smart man hiding his brains behind a drawl and cornpone dialogue. They're thrown together with some other strange people and the pressure goes up high. Result: murder.

I quoted a bit from Polito's biography of Thompson where he says this takes place in an alternate universe to THE KILLER INSIDE ME, which has the crazed psycho Lou Ford. This book's Lou Ford enforces the law and keeps a sensible lid on a town full of booze and money. It's odd reading about this Lou Ford if you're used to the other. All in all, this is minor Thompson, but he's good at cramped, fast-moving noir and minor Thompson is still worth reading. But read THE KILLER INSIDE ME before this one.

A while later I noticed THE BROKEN GUN (1967) by Louis L'Amour on my shelf, beside THE HILLS OF HOMICIDE (1983) (a collection of revised versions of pulp mysteries he wrote in the late '40s, including one from BLACK MASK). I'm not much for western novels, but since this was set in Arizona I thought I'd give it a shot and see if it was at all hardboiled. It's the first western L'Amour set in contemporary times, I think: it's about a writer who gets mixed up with some bad ranchers because of research he's doing into something that happened in the Old West.

He's not just a writer, though, he's a former cowboy who saw action in two wars and worked as a spy in Europe. He sure surprises the ranchers, who are expecting a sissified tenderfoot. With his Apache friend, he takes on everyone, and puts everything right. There's action, with guns and horses, and the hero's a tough hombre, but it's a solid western and not hardboiled. There is a lot of description of the hills and desert, though.

I have a bunch of Frank Gruber's westerns, but haven't read any. Are they good?


William Denton : Toronto, Canada : http://www.miskatonic.org/ : Caveat lector.

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