They called him ‘Dumb John’, mocked him, provoked him – and hanged him from a cotton wood tree. Only then did they discover his true identity – and the whole town recoiled in terror from the stranger who walked their streets with death as his shadow, searching for the men who had lynched his brother.
I think this is the first book I’ve read which carries the authors’ real name. Long ago I read some, if not all, of the Amos Flagg series Adams put out under the pseudonym Clay Randall but I can’t really remember much about them, so I came to this book not knowing what to expect.
The main themes are vengeance, redemption and justice. Lynch law sets the tale in motion and soon the guilt of those who hanged John Salem is the main story thread. Ben McDermit is the lawman who was out of town when the posse strung up John. McDermit is furious that they didn’t imprison John to be tried by judge and jury. A letter in John’s pocket reveals his true identity and that his brother is the notorious killer Jute McCoy. Now fear grips the town and any strangers who arrive are held in suspicion and driven out of town, until a man called Kelso comes to Menloe and refuses to leave.
Matters get worse when Kelso kills two of the posse after they try to force out of town. McDermit jails Kelso for his own safety but a lynch mob demands he’s handed over. McDermit isn’t convinced Kelso is McCoy. The is Kelso really who he says he is or is he actually McCoy is the new question that the whole story now revolves around. Many characters believe he is Kelso and think that by hanging him all their troubles will go away, but McDermit can’t let that happen. This creates some very tense scenes throughout the book as Kelso never says he is McCoy, but doesn’t deny it either.
Adams builds the suspense extremely well in this hardboiled tightly plotted tale. He creates feelings of fear and guilt superbly. Hopelessness too, as McDermit questions whether he can keep Kelso alive long enough to discover if he is McCoy or not. The one female, Leah, is just as strong willed as the male characters. McDermit is secretly in love with her, but struggles to understand her actions – one minute she’s leading a lynch mob out for Kelso’s blood, and then she’s tending to the man when he is wounded. All this makes it impossible to predict how the book will end.
Stranger in Town proved to be an excellent reintroduction to the work of Clifton Adams and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more of his books.