Underground Reading: Iron Men and Silver Stars, edited by Donald Hamilton
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
“The point I am trying to get across to my writing colleagues is: Let’s not get too enamored of absolute historical accuracy, and for heaven’s sake let’s not start thinking of ourselves self-consciously as great creative artists inheriting a grand literary tradition stemming direct from Owen Wister, whose Virginian was actually a pretty dull book.” – Donald Hamilton
The above passage is from Mr. Hamilton’s passionate introduction to Iron Men and Silver Stars (1967) a collection of Western shorts. Donald Hamilton is best known as the creator of Matt Helm, the “American James Bond” – a series of heavy-breathing adventures that sold in the millions.
Mr. Hamilton’s introduction sets the tone of the book. He damns historical accuracy with faint praise, declaring as long as no one “rides north from Denver to Sante Fe”, the reader won’t (and shouldn’t) care. He further illustrates his point by adding that, as far as proper history goes, cowboys rarely fought with bare hands and the ladies always rode side-saddle – two rather dull truths that fly in the face of the Western literary tradition. “After all,” Mr. Hamilton concludes, “I’m a novelist, not a historian, and if I get too absorbed in the detail of what actually happened back in the nineteenth century, I may lose the pace of the story I’m trying to tell in the twentieth.”
Given that Mr. Hamilton has cheerfully set his own criteria for criticism, how well do the stories of Iron Men and Silver Stars actually succeed as entertainment?
The book sets the tone with its opening story, “Green Wounds” by Carter Travis Young. An aging sheriff hears out a mysterious stranger in his office. As the stranger slowly winds through his story, the sheriff slowly realises that they’re intimately connected. And as the story approaches its conclusion, the sheriff becomes aware that the stranger knows it as well. If anything, “Green Wounds” follows the tightly-knit structure of a good crime story. Two unreliable narrators sit across a desk from one another and, as their individual tales unwind, the tension mounts.
“Epitaph” by Tom Blackburn is the second story. Although it continues the dark tone of “Green Wounds”, it does so with much more gunfire (plus a saloon brawl, a weeping woman and even a stagecoach). A sheriff (younger, this time) has seemingly fallen into drunken dissolution. As the warring forces in his town collide, he’s caught in the middle and forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Law.
The pattern set by these two stories continues throughout Iron Men and Silver Stars. These are tales of redemption, men overcoming their self-doubt to triumph over implacable foes. Generally speaking, said foes are invariably cowardly lynch mobs or sinister gunmen. And success always comes packaged with a beautiful woman and a shiny badge. There’s no higher position for man to aspire than that of the Deputy US Marshall.
Only a few stories in the collection fall short of the editor's lofty goal of providing good entertainment. Todhunter Ballard’s “The Mayor of Strawberry Hill” tries to tell the redemption tale as a comedy. Mr. Ballard takes a page from Mark Twain in its depiction of logging-camp lunacy, but, ultimately, his story of the illiterate lawman is more goofy than meaningful.
Brian Garfield’s “Peace Officer” takes a more melodramatic tack, but is no less goofy. A young Ranger faces down a dangerous gunman. The town’s sheriff (old, scared, etc) tries to keep the peace by keeping a low profile. The sheriff’s beautiful daughter gets involved and everything unfolds in a painfully predictable fashion. "Peace Officer" is any ninety-minute Western boiled town to a dozen pages, with the characters (such as they are) rendered down into fleshless marionettes.
The book’s finest moment is John Prescott’s “Coward’s Canyon”. A young rancher is part of a posse, out on the trail of murderous bandits. The posse’s ostensible leader is Rawlins, a quiet, ungainly man with old-fashioned habits and scraggly clothes. Our protagonist and his companions are more drawn to Charley, a charismatic gunman with a bit of banditry in his own past. Rawlins commits the cardinal sin of confessing that he’s scared the night before a gun battle. Needless to say, the men – all young and nervous – don’t sleep a wink.
The story’s conclusion is, like “Peace Officer”, visible from a long way off. But Prescott captures the narrator’s initial confusion and dawning maturity in a manner that keeps the story fresh. The fast-talking Charley is weak, but not loathsome. And Rawlins is impressive, but in no way flawless. While stories like “Peace Officer” celebrate dire sacrifices and impossible achievements, “Coward’s Canyon” rewards relatively everyday feats of heroism.
The collection's final story, Mr. Hamilton's own "The Guns of William Longley", later won an award for the best Western short of the year. A young man, talented but rough, is forced to choose between the life of an outlaw or the life of a lawman. His guns - supposedly those of the famous killer - seem to draw him towards the former. Mr. Hamilton abandons the ultra-serious tone of his Matt Helm series and writes "The Guns of William Longley" with a dry wit. Despite the flying lead and the protagonist's very real problems, the reader never feels a sense of danger. The narrator recites every incident with an unnatural calm - seemingly coasting on instinct alone. Mr. Hamilton uses the story to directly address the theme of authenticity vs storytelling. It doesn't matter if the "cursed" guns belonged to Longley or not - as long as people believe they do, they have power.
In George Gilman’s Edge, Westerns showed that they’re a generation ahead of the curve in using morally ambiguous heroes to tell gritty “realistic” tales without delving into pure nihilism. Returning to his introduction, Mr. Hamilton has struck upon another cross-genre truth: replace The Virginian with The Fellowship of the Ring and the opening quote makes just as much sense.
The drive to build worlds in a pixel-perfect and canonical way is an instinctive one, but doesn’t make a better story. Nor does everything need to subscribe to a “grand literary tradition”. There’s plenty of space on the shelf for pulp - a good story. As Mr. Hamilton put it, “who’s too proud to be an entertainer?” The selection contained in Iron Men and Silver Stars proves that, in 1967 at least, many writers were more than happy to take on that role.