Another pair of paperback Westerns - Nelson Nye's Quick-Fire Hombre and Ward Langley's Blood and Hate.
Despite the appalling cover, Blood and Hate (1959) turned out to be an enjoyable little tale. Our hero, Paul Bascombe is new to the town of Prairie. Prairie is in the cattle business, the town's tiny main street surrounded by thousands of acres of unclaimed land, currently used for grazing. The biggest man in town is Bull Harris – owner of the Bar M Ranch. He's the richest, meanest and greediest - and, as according to the genre tradition, he's got the prettiest daughter.
Bascombe is a soft-spoken man, and not out to make enemies. As the book begins, he's saving the life of a Mexican stranger, just to reinforce to the reader that Paul here is a good egg through and through. But Bascombe rides into Prairie like the Four Horsemen combined - he wants to graze sheep. Bull Harris is livid. Sheep (allegedly) devour all the grass and ruin the land for cattle. Paul's woolly apocalypse also requires some of the (unclaimed) land to be fenced off, so his beloved cows can no longer roam free. Bascombe's got the law on his side as well - with the new Government land act, he can claim, fence and en-sheep some of the Prairie land. Sadly, Harris has no problem with illegal methods of persuasion.
For a slim book, there's a hefty cast. Bull Harris also has a son, Tom. Tom's a dumber, more fiery version of his father. He's also fiercely protective of his sister, Marie, and a firm believer that a little violence solves most problems. Bull doesn't exactly rein him in, but Tom's generally the one to start problems with Paul Cascombe. Bull Harris also has a brother, Luke. Luke's the only quiet one in the family and, like Marie, has reservations about all the trouble.
Of course the real black hat is Deputy Sheriff Jed Bartle. Jed's a family friend of the Harris clan and regards himself as the husband-to-be of the fair Marie. Jed's a bit smarter than the folks around him and plays the role of Bad Goofy, urging Tom and Bull to trouble in order to keep his own hands clean. Eventually Jed's hatred of Paul (spurred on by Paul's budding romance with the dead-eyed Marie) prompts him to act directly. For the final chapters, Jed transforms into a whirlwind of Luciferian evil the likes of which have not been seen since Billy Zane gnawed the railing off the Titantic.
Muddying the water futher is Dorado - a Mexican gunfighter who sneaks onto the scene as a favor to Senor Cordova, the man that Paul rescued in the opening pages. Dorado, masquerading as "Charlie Smith", is sent to act as a guardian angel. The prescient Cordova could spot Paul's problems a mile away, but due to a slight legal hiccup (he's a bank robber), he couldn't go himself. Dorado plays an interesting role as Paul Bascombe's six-shooting sin-eater. The author sets Paul up to be game but naive. He's outgunned throughout, and never (as per the cinema standard) spontaneously evolves superhuman pistol skills. Instead, Paul plows forward on chutzpah and wit, while Dorado flits around in the background, removing obstacles and keeping Paul's hands clean.
There's one particularly great moment where Paul is facing a duel with one of the Harris gunmen - a known killer named Mark Tullane. Mark challenges Paul in every possible way. In the dead centre of town, as well, so he has "no choice" (honorably speaking) but to fight. Paul agrees, but while Mark takes his ten paces and readies his pistol, Paul walks all the way down the street and gets his rifle from his wagon. He then stops seventy-five yards away, ready to duel. Tullane is dumbfounded. "This wasn't according to the book." (57) There's a moment of whining while Tullane appeals to "the rules" but Paul laughs it off. He's ready to duel - he just "didn't bring a pistol".
The charm of Blood and Hate is that it echoes its protagonist's naivete. Tullane's appeal to "the rules" demonstrates how the entire book is a bit "meta" - a Western written about Westerns instead of the West. The curious absence of racism (in fact, Mexico's "Senor Dorado" passing as Tennessee's "Charlie Smith" is both unlikely and bizarre) and the frequent pro-sheep diatribes also add to the book's puzzling air. One possible explanation is that Don Haring, the man behind the "Ward Langley" pseudonym, was a major figure in the Australian pulp movement. Although American, Haring settled in Australia after WWII until his death in 1980.
There's much less to say about Quick-Fire Hombre (1968). "'Blur' Ankrom, King of the Corpse-Makers" is pretty much the goofiest title I've ever read, and I look forward to poaching it for a D&D character. "Blur" is a reformed killer, trying to hide from his bloody past as a gunfighter. He's drawn into the local cattle (mob) war and is redeemed by the love of a good woman. There's a bad woman as well, and some other killers and a whole horde of exclamation marks.
The book begins with "Blur" rides out of the desert and into anachronism. Despite having fought in the Civil War (and not being 60 at the time), "Blur" finds Paso Pinto (a remote Texas town) filled with electric lights and automobiles. He doesn't even think twice about this strange, futurist enclave in the middle of nowhere.
To be generous, Nelson Nye does throw in a few lines about how the folks of Peso Pinto are pretending that they're not in the Wild West – the soft drink advertising and shiny red convertibles are just window-dressing over its rough and ready cowboy core. And, were this book not otherwise awful, this would be a tangent worthy of exploration. However, Quick-Fire Hombre is jarringly bad. "Blur" keeps blundering through set-piece scenes that have more in common with mob pulps than Westerns - Crocodile Dundee crossed with Dick Tracy. All is made worse by the author's desperate insistence that the book be taken seriously. Quick-Fire Hombre has a good cover, a memorably-named character and absolutely nothing going for it.
By Jared (@pornokitsch) aka "Smudge" Shurin, King of the Coffee-Makers