Harlan Ellison x Subterranean Press
Classic Movies: Highlander (1986)

Underground Reading: Lynch Town by John Kilgore

Lynch TownLynch Town (1967) is one of the many, many Westerns written by American author Lauren Paine, this time under the name of "John Kilgore". 

I'm new to Westerns, having only discovered the genre a few years ago, but Lynch Town is one of the ones I've enjoyed most. It is quick, stylish and, in what seems to be a rarity, features a sheriff that relies more on his brains than his gun. Unfortunately, this is all marred by a by-the-book (pun intended) ending that falls back on genre conventions.

Sheriff Jim Conner is pretty reluctant to hang teenagers, but he caught Carl Overton stealing Cody Younger's horses dead to rights. The town's "hangin' judge" doesn't have any qualms at all, so poor Carl only has a few days to live. Conner has just about talking himself into doing his duty and executing the boy when more of the story comes out. Carl is Cody's long-lost nephew, and was stealing "back" the horses as part of his inheritance.

Conner comes up with some inventive ways to delay the hanging - creatively stretching the county laws as necessary - and goes out on a hunt for something new and different in a Western: evidence.

Cody Younger, Conner finds out, is tied into more than just inheritance-theft (seen more as a "moral" crime in Lynch Town). He's a gambler (who isn't?), a conniving trader (again, meh) and, randomly, a forger. Forgery seems like a banal crime compared to the other horrors of the Wild West, but it cuts right to the core of the frontier civilization. Forgery undermines a man's word -and when most business is done on the basis of a handshake and a signature, a skilled forger can topple empires. Even in the small scope of Lynch Town, we see the impact of Cody's larcenous talent: friends turn on one another, a family is ruined, an innocent man almost reaches the gallows. 

Sheriff Conner also encounters Carl's in-laws, the Parkers. Charmingly, the 19-year-old-bell-pull-to-be managed to get married to a 15-year-old girl up in Wyoming. Her family shows up, armed to the teeth (who can blame them?). As a group of savvy hillbillies, they're an entertaining lot - and it takes a lot of fast talking from Conner to keep Carl from being killed twice over. Again, the author emphasizes brains over brawn. Of all the grizzled men in the Parker family, John, the youngest and smartest, gets the most praise - by both the author and the other characters. John's least likely to start a fight, least carried away by his emotions and most likely to go through things rationally. He's a good egg.

In fact, when the inevitable shooting starts about three-quarters of the way through, it is almost a let-down. Sheriff Conner's spent most of the book piecing together a mystery, performing great acts of frontier diplomacy, and tracking down astounding pieces of evidence. Having everything wrap-up with a hail of bullets feels like an easy ending, even if it is one that the audience demands.

Oddly, Kilgore's writing is better suited for the slow scenes as well. In the fast pace of a fight, the cliches fly like "sixgun bullets". I suppose there's only so many ways to say "x shot at y, missed", but there must be more than two. The genre "requirement" for violence really lets the side down. There's a lesson in there across every genre, I suspect...