The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County by Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ 1940. This edition: Ace, circa 1970. Paperback. 312 pages.
My rating: 3/10. Hmm, nope, I’d better revise that, because its camp value makes it paradoxically enjoyable, in an so-bad-you-can’t-look-away way. So how about a 4/10. (I’m feeling very generous today.)
Provenance: Total impulse buy, 25 cents at the Williams Lake Sally Ann just a few days ago. Picked it up, put it down, turned away, and then, as I was leaving, my hand reached out of its own volition and snatched it quickly. (Couldn’t leave empty-handed, could I? Gave the clerk a loonie for it, too, because a quarter just seemed so cheap somehow. So I guess it really cost a whole dollar.)
A few blazingly hot afternoons ago, I joined my husband for a mid-day lunch and reading break out under the shady apple tree, and he glanced over at my book and did a complete double take.
“What are you reading now?! And why? Is that another one of those Century things?”
Well, that would be a western pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yes, the Tarzan guy. And no, it’s not really a Century book, because its year, 1940, is already filled with D.E. Stevenson’s The English Air, but hey! – an extra book isn’t such a bad thing, and this one is short and not at all demanding on the readerly intellect. And if Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage receives representation among my Century reads for its cultural significance to American popular literature, can’t I make the same argument in favour the at-least-just-as-culturally-significant Burroughs?
Of course I can.
Who killed Ole Gunderstrom? The evidence seemed to point to Buck Mason. And when Buck went into hiding soon after, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind. But Buck knew he was innocent- now he was going to have to prove it.
Gunderstrom lay asleep on a cot against one of the cabin walls. A man was crossing the room stealthily with a long-barreled Colt in his hands.
The intruder could see the cot and the outlines of the blur that was the sleeper upon it: but he did not see the boot in his path, and half stumbled as he stepped on it.
Gunderstrom awoke and sat up. “‘Buck Mason! ” he exclaimed. A t the same time he reached for the gun beside him. There was a flash in the dark; the silence was split by the report of a pistol and Ole Gunderstrom slumped back upon his blanket.
Poor Ole is dead, a bullet in his head, and for no apparent reason – his shack is not disarranged as if robbery were the motive, though Ole is filthy rich and lives in squalid simplicity merely through personal eccentricity. Rumour has it that he has gold buried here and there in his several dwelling places, but no one appears to have stopped to look either before or after plugging the old curmudgeon.
Then the sheriff’s office receives a mysterious phone call accusing the deputy sheriff – one Buck Mason – of the crime, and local gossip soon finds several motives. Wasn’t Buck deeply in love with Ole’s lovely daughter Olga, and didn’t Ole send her off to an Eastern boarding school to remove her from the rough company of the local cowboys? And wasn’t there a property dispute, with Ole having fenced in a hundred acres of Buck’s land, and didn’t Buck state his intentions of reclaiming it and planting it to alfalfa? And wasn’t Buck seen leaving Ole’s shack the evening before the discovery of Ole’s body?
So when Buck vanishes after performing his own forensic examination of the crime scene, it doesn’t look good for the innocence of the deputy, and a warrant is made out for his arrest.
Meanwhile, on a dude ranch in Arizona, a bumbling, over-dressed, claiming-to-be-a-polo-player fellow shows up suddenly, to the annoyance of the ranch’s owner, the surly Cory Blaine. Cory and his cowboys have a lot of fun sneering at the clothing and deportment of “Bruce Marvel”; but the female guests take a second look, for my goodness! – isn’t Bruce quite a hunk of manflesh, tight English riding breeches showing off his muscular thighs and all.
Cutting to the chase: Bruce is Buck in disguise. He suspects Cory of the murder of Ole and is collecting evidence to prove it, which Cory obligingly supplies, having completely blown off “Bruce” as a lightweight posturer. But when Bruce/Buck transfers his affections from his old love Olga (who also shows up at the ranch – won’t get into detail – too complicated) to one of the lady-dudes, Kay White, Cory sees red, for he has marked beautiful and wealthy Kay as his own, despite her cagy avoidance of his romantic advances.
Much riding about the country then ensues, and a kidnapping and all sorts of he-man shenanigans, ending with Bruce stripping off his Eastern disguise and coming out six-guns a-blazing as his true self: the sharp-shooting, bad-man-killing Buck. He single-handedly rescues lovely Kay from the bad guys, fatally plugs several of them with his trusty pistols, and presents the solution to the crime, which I’m a little vague on even this soon after finishing this wonderfully pulpy tale. Something about double-crossing on a rustled cattle deal or something. Ole was a bit of a slimeball, it appears, and quite possibly deserved his demise at the hands of his erstwhile cohorts.
Oh, I referenced Vogue up in the post heading. I guess I should clarify that. Apparently Buck, way back before Ole’s murder, has set about on a program of self-improvement to bring himself up to the lovely Olga’s social level.
The book that he was reading he had taken from a cupboard, the door of which was secured by a padlock, for the sad truth was that Mason was ashamed of his library and of his reading. He would have hated to have had any of his cronies discover his weakness, for the things that he read were not of the cow country. They included a correspondence course in English, a number of the classics which the course had recommended, magazines devoted to golf, polo, yachting, and a voluminous book on etiquette; but perhaps the thing that caused him the greatest mental perturbation in anticipation of its discovery by his candid, joke-loving friends was a file of the magazine Vogue.
No one knew that Buck Mason pored over these books and magazines whenever he had a leisure moment; in fact, no one suspected that he possessed them; and he would have died rather than to have explained why he did so…
This “not of the cow country” reading program allowed Buck to pull off his Bruce masquerade, and also made him appear as desirably well-cultured in the eyes of luscious Kay, so it was all to the good. I thought it was rather a sweet touch, the rough cowboy seeking to improve himself in secret, and look how wonderfully he was rewarded!
The “notching of the gun” thing is the author’s nod to shoot-’em-up cowboy mythology; Buck adds notches for the fellows he’s killed to the guns he’s inherited from his dad. (Eddie is one of the bad guys, the youngest just-gone-wrong of the gang; Buck spares his life in the end.)
As he (Buck) ceased speaking he drew a large pocket knife from his overalls and opened one of the blades. Then he drew one of his forty-fours, the wooden grip of which bore many notches, the edges of which were rounded and smooth and polished by the use of many years. As Eddie watched him, fascinated, Marvel cut two new notches below the older ones.
“Them’s Bryam and Mart?” asked the prisoner.
Marvel nodded. “And there’s room for some more yet, Eddie,” he said.
“You make all them?” asked Eddie.
“No,” replied Marvel. “These guns were my father’s.”
“He must have been a bad man from way back,” commented Eddie in frank admiration.
“He weren’t nuthin’ of the kind,” replied Bruce. “He was a sheriff’.”
“Oh!” said Eddie.
Burroughs’ style is a thing of joy to the modern reader; he happily references the whole thesaurus and then some in decorating his galloping prose. This was one of my favourite passages. Note the use of “revivify” and ” verdue” (surely that last is meant to be “verdure”?) among the rest.
The horses moved forward eagerly now and with vitality renewed by anticipation of the opportunity of quenching their thirst in the near
future. The change in the spirits of their mounts seemed also to revivify the riders; so that it was with much lighter hearts that the three rode on beneath the pitiless rays of an Arizona sun, Marvel giving Baldy his head in the knowledge that the animal’s instinct would lead it unerringly to the nearest water.
Ahead of them stretched what appeared to be an unbroken expanse of rolling brush land, lying arid and uninviting in the shimmering heat of
Presently there broke upon Marvel’s vision the scene for which he had been waiting, the picture of which he had been carrying in his memory since boyhood–a large, bowl-like depression, in the bottom of which green verdue proclaimed the presence of the element that might mean the difference between life and death to them.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a fascinating literary character. He produced well over a hundred sensational novels, and was one of the first writers to incorporate himself and trademark his name. Famous primarily for his invention of Tarzan, he also dreamt up several sci-fi worlds (namely the John Carter of Mars and Pellucidar series) and branched out into overwrought Westerns such as The Deputy Sheriff. His biography as presented on the website link at the beginning of this paragraph is well worth reading; what a story his own life made!
The Deputy Sheriff Of Comanche County first appeared as a serial in Thrilling Adventures magazine in 1940, under the title The Terrible Tenderfoot.
You may read it yourself here, if you so desire: The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County on Project Gutenberg