Posts Tagged ‘Western’

the deputy sheriff of comanche county ace paperback edgar rice b 001The 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.

First edition cover of "The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County"

First edition cover of “The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County”

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
the morning.

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

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riders of the purple sage zane grey personal copy 001Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey ~ 1912. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, circa 1920s. Illustrations by Douglas Duer. Hardcover. 335 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Oh, Lassiter, you big black-clad gun-slinging hero of this desperately romantic book, if I ever find it within me to start to read this one again, please rise up off the printed page, leap off your amazing blind horse, unholster your big black pistol, and shoot me right away. Don’t just nick a lung, like your buddy Venters did to the virginally beautiful Bess as she trotted past his desperate hideout garbed in her Masked Rider’s disguise, but kill me outright, same as you did Mormon Bishop Dyer, despoiler of your late sister and destroyer of her happy marriage. Except maybe don’t shoot me in the arms first, as you did him, before blasting five more holes in his chest. Just aim for my heart, and make it quick.

Gar. What a book. Wow.

So bad.

What was I thinking?

Oh, yeah, that whole “classic of American literature and mold-maker of the classic Western genre” thing.

I’m not even going to touch the Important Book for Various Reasons argument, but am going to go instead to Pleasure of Reading for a Modern Reader. (Meaning me.) Did I enjoy this book? Mostly, no. The novelty of the plushly purple prose paled quickly, and despite the campy sense of irony I felt as I doggedly waded through the story it wasn’t enough to make it an acceptably good experience.

It’s 1871 in Utah, and the Mormons are well-established, top-dogging it marvellously well with their polygamous colonies headed by manly men wedded to legions of willing wives. So when rich Mormon rancher’s daughter Jane Withersteen spurns the advances of the man chosen for her by the local Mormon bishop and insists on carrying on with her charity to the impoverished Gentile (blanket term for anyone non-Mormon) families of the area and her hiring of Gentile riders to care for her seven thousand head of range cattle, events start to escalate.

riders purple sage zane grey old djJust as Jane’s chief Gentile Rider, Venters, is about to be hauled off by a posse of Mormons, fate in the guise of black-clad, gun-slinging, Mormon-hating Lassiter arrives in the nick of time. The Mormons withdraw muttering, to go off and devise clever plans of revenge and sabotage against uppish Jane, while she enjoys (for a while) the loving devotion of two passionate men. (Venters and Lassiter.)

“Then I’ll have you whipped within an inch of your life,” replied Tull, harshly. “I’ll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come back you’ll get worse.”

Venters’s agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed to gray.

Jane impulsively stepped forward. “Oh! Elder Tull!” she cried. “You won’t do that!”

Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.

“That’ll do from you. Understand, you’ll not be allowed to hold this boy to a friendship that’s offensive to your Bishop. Jane Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven’t yet come to see the place of Mormon women. We’ve reasoned with you, borne with you. We’ve patiently waited. We’ve let you have your fling, which is more than I ever saw granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven’t come to your senses. Now, once for all, you can’t have any further friendship with Venters. He’s going to be whipped, and he’s got to leave Utah!”

“Oh! Don’t whip him! It would be dastardly!” implored Jane, with slow certainty of her failing courage.

Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed.

Lots of stuff then happens, most of it involving the Mormons and Jane’s Gentile champions plus an independent gang of rustlers shooting at each other (frequently fatally), stealing cattle and prize racehorses, befriending a cute little orphan four-year-old (“Duz oo wuv me, Muvver Jane?”), finding a secret hidden valley and thousand-year-old abandoned cliff dwellings (an enjoyable interlude which added on a point or two to my brutally low rating), panning for gold (“washing” gold, nice topical reference), ambushing, wounding and restoring to life a lovely young girl disguised as a boy cattle rustler, charging about on various noble steeds including Lassiter’s original blind steed (who perishes tragically), two black Arabians (Jane and Lassiter) and a rugged yet awesomely sturdy and fast range horse (Wrangle, ridden by Venters) who in turn is stolen by a bad guy and ends up being shot by his loving owner in order to ensure the demise of the bad guy rider.

And much else.

This is a very multi-stranded story with lots going on, and you have to hand it to Zane Grey, he deserves credit for being ambitious with his intentions.

Here’s another snippet of the text:

He lifted her—what a light burden now!—and stood her upright beside him, and supported her as she essayed to walk with halting steps. She was like a stripling of a boy; the bright, small head scarcely reached his shoulder. But now, as she clung to his arm, the rider’s costume she wore did not contradict, as it had done at first, his feeling of her femininity. She might be the famous Masked Rider of the uplands, she might resemble a boy; but her outline, her little hands and feet, her hair, her big eyes and tremulous lips, and especially a something that Venters felt as a subtle essence rather than what he saw, proclaimed her sex.

Western garb and setting aside, Riders of the Purple Sage is purely an über-traditional romance, and the two female love interests – Jane Withersteen and ex-Masked Rider Bess – are both , despite their brief moments of sturdy independence – Jane in standing up to her Church, and Bess in her mastery of horsemanship –  at heart simpering girly-girls all a-dither with love for their manly men, whom they then order hither and yon with feminine whimsy. The menfolk, being blinded by Love, trot willingly to and fro, breaking out occasionally (“Sorry, lost my temper and killed your dad”) and being instantly forgiven (“That’s okay, he wasn’t my real dad, even if he raised me from a tiny baby and gave me total love and devotion and protected me from the wicked men who sought to ruin me and gave me a proper education and everything”) and generally being tweaked about on silken leading strings.

riders purple sage zane grey old illustrated coverAnd despite spending weeks alone with each other – Lassiter and Jane holed up in the ranch house, Venters and Bess in the hidden valley – the most physical they get with each other is the occasional embrace (with the men nobly holding themselves back from the passions engendered by contact with the heaving breasts of the beloved) and a few rather chaste kisses. These guys (and gals) were made of steel! This is romantic fiction at its best, all heaving bosoms and blushes and occasional fainting and manly-passion-held-in-check just a-waiting for a woman’s word and the arrival of a preacher man to hold a marriage ceremony before going any further.

Oh, yes. And then there’s all the “western” dialect:

The rider thundered up and almost threw his foam-flecked horse in the sudden stop. He was a giant form, and with fearless eyes.

“Judkins, you’re all bloody!” cried Jane, in affright. “Oh, you’ve been shot!”

“Nothin’ much Miss Withersteen. I got a nick in the shoulder. I’m some wet an’ the hoss’s been throwin’ lather, so all this ain’t blood.”

“What’s up?” queried Venters, sharply.

“Rustlers sloped off with the red herd.”

“Where are my riders?” demanded Jane.

“Miss Withersteen, I was alone all night with the herd. At daylight this mornin’ the rustlers rode down. They began to shoot at me on sight. They chased me hard an’ far, burnin’ powder all the time, but I got away.”

And the reams of descriptive prose. You can certainly tell that Zane Grey got his start writing pulp fiction which was paid for by the word, because he does pack them in.

Venters … went to the edge of the terrace, and there halted to survey the valley.

He was prepared to find it larger than his unstudied glances had made it appear; for more than a casual idea of dimensions and a hasty conception of oval shape and singular beauty he had not had time. Again the felicity of the name he had given the valley struck him forcibly. Around the red perpendicular walls, except under the great arc of stone, ran a terrace fringed at the cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first terrace sloped another wider one densely overgrown with aspens, and the center of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in half. Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among the trees. To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous cavern opened in the wall; and low down, just above the tree-tops, he made out a long shelf of cliff-dwellings, with little black, staring windows or doors. Like eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen—all ruins—had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the valley. Venters felt sure that he was the only white man who had ever walked under the shadow of the wonderful stone bridge, down into that wonderful valley with its circle of caves and its terraced rings of silver spruce and aspens.

The dog growled below and rushed into the forest. Venters ran down the declivity to enter a zone of light shade streaked with sunshine. The oak-trees were slender, none more than half a foot thick, and they grew close together, intermingling their branches. Ring came running back with a rabbit in his mouth. Venters took the rabbit and, holding the dog near him, stole softly on. There were fluttering of wings among the branches and quick bird-notes, and rustling of dead leaves and rapid patterings. Venters crossed well-worn trails marked with fresh tracks; and when he had stolen on a little farther he saw many birds and running quail, and more rabbits than he could count. He had not penetrated the forest of oaks for a hundred yards, had not approached anywhere near the line of willows and cottonwoods which he knew grew along a stream. But he had seen enough to know that Surprise Valley was the home of many wild creatures.

This is a dreadfully silly “review”, but as the internet abounds with discussion of this book, I’m going to quit right here.

I read the thing from cover to cover, I muttered to myself and to my family, I rolled my eyes, I mused over the novel’s place in the American historical literary canon, and I am now ready to gently shelve it way high up and move along. It had its pleasurable moments, duly noted, but it’s ultimately not the book for me.

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