Tuesday 26 May 2020

The Gallowsman

By Will Cade
Leisure, November 1998

Ben Woolard is a man ready to start over. The life he’s leaving behind is none too pretty, filled with ghosts and pain. When he lost his wife and children, he took to the bottle so hard he almost couldn’t find his way out again. And his career as a Union spy during the war still doesn’t sit quite right with him, even if the man sent to the gallows by his testimony was a murderer. But now Ben’s finally sobered up, moved west to Colorado, staked out a claim, put the past behind him.

But sometimes the past won’t lie still. Sometimes it just won’t stay buried. And, as Ben learns when folks start telling him that the man he saw hanged is alive and in town – sometimes those ghosts come back.

This is a book filled with intrigue. Not only is the main storyline laced with mystery but also the sub-plot involving an attractive young woman who disguises herself as a man to hide her identity from her half-brother who she claims will kill her if he finds her.

The author has come up with a great set of characters and has plenty of surprises waiting for them, and the reader, as the plot unfolds. Gold teeth, ghosts and the young lady I’ve already mentioned all having important roles to play as this story builds to its deadly conclusion.

This isn’t a story filled with gunplay, although it does contain some vicious action scenes, but a lot of the killings take place off screen so to speak. Don’t let that put you off reading this though, as the author certainly knows how to write a suspenseful story that keeps you turning the pages in a quest to discover just what is going on. Arson, murder, beatings and kidnapping all raise their ugly heads during this twisting tale that sees Ben Woolard questioning his past and whether he can trust those he becomes involved with whilst trying to forge a new life for himself. Woolard will have to endure both physical and emotional batterings before discovering the truth. Neither storyline being resolved as I expected which enhanced my total enjoyment of this book.

Will Cade is a pseudonym used by Cameron Judd and this book certainly has me looking forward to reading more of his work soon. 

Thursday 21 May 2020

Once Late with a .38

number 7 of 8 *
By Peter Brandvold
Berkley, October 2003

Sheriff Ben Stillman has enough of a hard time keeping peace in the town of Clantick without having to worry about the likes of Matt Parish. Since his father died, Matt has been responsible for the Circle P Ranch – and his hot-headed streak has been responsible for a lot of trouble with the other ranchers . . . including his future father-in-law, Tom Suthern. 

Despite failing health and loss of profits, Tom refuses to sell his spread to Matt, even if he is marrying his daughter. So, when Matt is discovered in the presence of Tom’s bullet-riddled corpse, people naturally assume he murdered the old man. Now, it’s up to Ben Stillman to protect Matt from a trigger-happy posse and find the real killer – before it’s too late . . . 

Sheriff Ben Stillman has always been one of my favourite characters to come from the pen of Peter Brandvold, perhaps because reading the first Stillman book was the one that introduced me to the authors writing and I’ve been a fan ever since. 

Peter Brandvold’s work can often be very graphic when he describes the violent scenes in his stories and the intimate moments between male and female characters. Language can be very colourful too, but in this book all these elements are kept to a minimum.

A number of other people from the town of Clantick have parts to play in this fast-moving story that sees Doc Evans taking a central role. In this series Stillman often tracks known outlaws but this time he has to become a detective, questioning suspects (and there’s a fair few of them) before the pieces of the jigsaw come together. Even as they do the plot thickens with twists and turns as double-cross and triple-cross further complicate the situation. 

The story regularly switches between a variety of characters as the violence escalates. Stillman eventually blundering into a situation that it seems he cannot possibly escape. Tension mounts as surprising revelations come one after the other leading to a thrilling conclusion. 

Once Late with a .38 is another excellent entry into the Sheriff Ben Stillman series and I’m certain it won’t be long before I read the next book.

* I’ve indicated at the top of this review that Once Late with a .38 is book seven of eight, which is true if we look at the original run of the series published by Berkley. Some eight years after book eight appeared Peter Brandvold started writing the series again. There are now 14 and they are all available through Wolfpack Publishing. 

Sunday 17 May 2020

Hot Lead: All Reviews Special

Editor Justin Marriott
May 2020

Over 215 capsule reviews from a century of western fiction!

This is a fanzine that should be on the shelves of every western fiction fan. 

With more than 160 pages this is a weighty publication that will provide hours on entertainment. It’s not a book to read cover to cover, but a collection to be dipped into, savoured and returned to time after time.

This beautifully put together fanzine is divided into separate sections covering ten year time periods, the first review is of a book that was published in 1927 and the final one being a novel from 2015. There are many cover illustrations to savour too, all produced in black and white. 

Comic book writer and author Chuck Dixon’s forward is both charming and entertaining and I can’t help but picture him practicing his fast draw whilst jumping up and down on his bed as a child.

Editor and producer Justin Marriott’s introduction tells of how this volume of Hot Lead came about and of how it developed as the reviews came in from enthusiastic western book fans resulting in him hoping it will become a yearly publication.

There are three special essays too. Paul Bishop looks at ten of his favourite western authors, Howard Andrew Jones explores the Gold Medal line of westerns and Gary Dobbs waxes lyrically about Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove Saga.   

To close the fanzine there is a contributor’s section where you can read a bit of background about many of the reviewers.

But what of the reviews themselves? As it states on the back of the fanzine it covers The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, although there are far more that fall into the good rather than the other two categories. Of course, we must remember that each review is one person’s opinion so it may not match your own thoughts on a particular book. Indeed, there are some that have received low star ratings that I’d have marked higher, and vice-versa, and that is part of the fascination of such publications.

Amid the many classic westerns reviewed you’ll also find lesser known novels. There are books from well-known authors and those who’ll be new to you. The passion of the reviewers for the genre comes across strongly and is very infectious. As well as traditional westerns you’ll find reviews of books from a variety of sub-genres such as adult westerns, cow-punk, SF-westerns, weird westerns, ultra-violent westerns and comic books.

There are reviews of stand-alone novels and those that form part of a series. Some authors have been reviewed more than once by different people and this helps give a more in-depth appreciation to those writers’ work. You’ll also discover who the authors are behind some of those pseudonyms. 

Whatever your taste in western fiction, I’m sure you’ll find some of your favourites in this collection and discover many more authors that you’ll want to try. One thing I can certainly guarantee is that it will have you rushing out to those used book stores and internet sites in search of the many gems you’ll read about in this issue of Hot Lead. 

If you haven’t bought a copy of the All Reviews Special then may I suggest you do so right away as it is something all fans of western fiction, and those who just have a passing interest, will find themselves reading over and over for both entertainment and reference.  If I may borrow the rating system from this book, I'll give it *****

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Damnation Valley

number 4 of 4
By William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle, July 2018

A Rocky Mountain winter has left Breck reeling from the carnage unleased by bloodthirsty trapper Jud Carnahan – and readying a quest for vengeance as ruthless as his prey. It gets even deadlier when Carnahan lays siege to a trading post on the Yellowstone River. He’s left the owner dead and kidnapped a pretty hostage who can turn a nice profit once he puts her to work.

Following his trail takes Breck clean to Santa Fe, where Carnahan’s set up a brothel bursting with hardened beauties, a saloon for cutthroats and thieves, and a trap for the frontiersman who’s tracked him every bloody step of the way. But over the rough, merciless miles it’s taken Breck to get here, he’s built up a raging fury that’s going to make this unholy town swim in blood.

The winter feud between Breck and Carnahan formed the major storyline of the previous Frontiersman book, The Darkest Winter. Although it’s not essential to read that book before this one it may be in the readers interest to do so. Damnation Valley does contain enough information to fill a new reader in on what happened before so this book can be read as a standalone. 

It takes around half the book before the siege at the trading post is resolved which results in the kidnapping of Ophelia Garwood. It’s also during Breck’s time at the trading post that we are introduced to a variety of characters that will play with the frontiersman’s emotions in different ways. Soon Breck’s hatred for Carnahan will reach new heights and he will stop at nothing to kill this evil man.

The author describes the battle scenes and smaller confrontations extremely well, places the reader right in there amid the action. At times the bloodletting is vicious but not gratuitously so. The atrocities performed by Carnahan will soon have the reader urging Breck on with his mission. Problem is Breck doesn’t have a clue as to where Carnahan is headed but his desire to both save Ophelia and kill his foe keeps him going when the odds are against him.

The book takes on a slightly darker tone once Breck arrives in Santa Fe and it’s here that the author has a brutal twist waiting, something that took me completely by surprise. Before his final bloody clash with Carnahan, Breck will team up with two characters long time readers of the Johnstone books will have met before, Audie and Nighthawk, and they will have important roles to play in the outcome of Breck’s quest for vengeance.  

This story, in fact all four books in this series, are gripping, fast-moving reads. Breckinridge Wallace is likeable as are many of the supporting characters, some of whom appear in more than one book. I particularly like the time period these stories are set in, and it makes a pleasant change from the many other westerns I read that are set in the 1880’s. I can only live in hope that one day further tales about the Frontiersman will appear. 

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Kill Town

2 of 2
By Cotton Smith
Pinnacle, November 2016

Agon Bordner is dead, and the ranch he cheated for has been handed over to Deed Corrigan and his brothers. But before he can get the Bar 3 back on its feet, Deed, Holt, and Blue must fight to rebuild the town by buying the bank and appointing a marshal. For a moment, peace looks possible for these three weary veterans of the trail – until the guns begin to fire.

Seeking vengeance for their boss, eight of Bordner’s killers storm the town. They rob the bank, kill the marshal, and break the rest of their gang out of the jail. To save the town, Deed and Holt hit the trail, planning vengeance the only way they know how. Blue stays behind, stepping into the marshal’s role to guard the jail, as the Corrigans risk their necks to save the only place they have ever called home.

This book continues some plot lines that were starting in the first Corrigan Brothers book Ride Away, and readers may prefer to read that before this one, although Cotton Smith includes enough background information to explain what has happened before so the storyline will make sense to those readers new to the series.

After the violent attack on the town, Holt, now a lawman, along with Deed, lead a posse in pursuit of the outlaws who’ve ridden off with the bank money. This chase and the bloody fight to retrieve the stolen money takes up a good portion of the book. This hunt and the desperate flight back to town hampered by Comanche attacks makes for some thrilling reading.

Once the survivors make it back to town the story’s momentum slumps a bit as we follow Holt as he makes himself known to some of the families that live around the town. Although a couple of these new characters have further roles to play, I wondered if we were being introduced them for a future book? The story picks up again as the remaining outlaws head back to town to take their revenge on the Corrigans and the town and we have another bloody battle to bring this plotline to an exciting close. 

Overall, this is a very readable book filled with great characters that include a samurai and the stray dog Tag. The action isn’t overly graphic, there aren’t any sex scenes and bad language is none existent. The plot isn’t complicated and is easy to follow. By the end of the story we are introduced to new characters and a major plotline setting us up for the next book. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be as Cotton Smith passed away at the age of 76 before either of the Corrigan Brother books were published.