John Ryker was a gunsmith. One of the best at a time when speed and skill with a shooting iron were as vital to survival as food in your belly.
Then one day Ryker sold a man a gun – a Deringer – that later killed a President. That incident set Ryker on a vengeance trail of blood and conflict that would test his gun-skill to its farthest limits. And so, the gunsmith became a killer – one whose professional mastery of the West’s armoury of death-dealing firepower made him the deadliest around . . .
The cover above is from my copy, which is a 1979 reprint. The book was first published in 1977 with cover art by Colin Backhouse – which you can see below.
The Gunslinger series came from the group of British authors who would later become known as the Piccadilly Cowboys. This series was written by Angus Wells and Laurence James, the latter being the author of this book.
What set this series apart from the others is that each book features a different gun. This time it’s the Deringer and its copies known as Derringers. Each book contains loads of information about the weapons both Ryker and others use, making this series a must read for anyone who has an interest in guns of this time period.
Like the vast majority of the series written by the Piccadilly Cowboys, it’s vengeance that sees Ryker hit the killing trail. At the beginning of the book, Ryker is just a gunsmith, he’s never killed anyone before. He sells a Deringer to a man who gives it to John Wilkes Booth who assassinates President Abraham Lincoln with it. Northerners then seek out anyone who they claim helped Booth achieve his aim, and the gunsmith who sold the Deringer becomes a target. Two men ride to Ryker’s hometown and finding him away, brutally kill his father instead. Ryker now wants revenge.
I always enjoyed seeing how Ryker changes, he’s a quick learner in the art of killing. He makes mistakes that nearly see him killed. He uses information customers gave him to hone his techniques whilst having their guns repaired. People such as John Wesley Hardin and an unknown man who carries a razor in a pouch behind his neck – a man Ryker thanks for giving him an edge.
Killing his father’s murderers isn’t the end of the book by far. Ryker has dealings with a banker named Goldburgh who claims ownership to the gunsmith’s family home and his store. The sheriff of Tucson, Nolan, encourages Ryker to become a bounty hunter to get the money he needs to get out of dept with the bank. The second half of the story sees Ryker head to Desolation, a town taken over by six Confederate deserters. Can Ryker, still learning his new trade, save the town from these savage killers and get the money he needs to payoff Goldburgh?
Laurence James does a superb job in introducing Ryker and some of the support characters who will have parts to play later in the series. James blends the gun information into the story in a natural way so these sections don’t come over like someone lecturing the reader about these weapons. As expected, the book is packed with bloody, descriptive violence and it also includes a little explicit sex. Like in many of James’ books, you’ll also find a character who’s an albino.
The Gunslinger series has always been one of my favourites to come from the Piccadilly Cowboys and I’d encourage anyone who likes their work to read this series. Whilst the paperbacks aren’t easy to find these days, you’ll be pleased to know that Piccadilly Publishing has just begun to put this series out as ebooks and The Massacre Trail is available now.