Friday 31 May 2024



By Tom West

Ace Books, 1965

“This town can always use deputies. It’s the toughest! They planted the marshal last week, lead poisoning. Third this season. Come sundown, the town’s a madhouse, south of the tracks. Abilene ain’t a patch on Prairie City. You might say it’s pure hell with the lid off.”
   “Wal,” the newcomer drawled, “I’m down to my last ten-spot. Just who hires deputies in this hell-raising town?”
   “Drop into the Bull Pen up the street,” rasped the clerk, grinning. “Better leave five bucks with me.”
   “For what?”
   “You’ll need a marker – in boot hill.”

The above conversation sets up the basic plot of this tale and the hard-boiled writing style gives the book a dark tone. The newcomer, a man just known as Tex, immediately questions his appointment, not as a deputy, but as Prairie City’s new marshal. Gamblers are betting on how long he’ll last and his deputies don’t seem to like him. Tex wonders why he should put his life on the line for a town in which he isn’t welcome. As the attempts on his life come, Tex gets close to quitting. Of course, he doesn’t and tension mounts. As the deadline for the bets to be paid on his death the gamblers set Tex up to be killed. Tex survives this but trouble still comes his way, especially when he decides it’s time to enforce the no guns in town law.

Tex also has women problems. He’s attracted to two and he soon has to deal with female jealousy. This could be the distraction that means he drops his guard for it to be the death of him.

The story is well written and the plot moves forwards quickly. It’s packed with tough talk and lively gunplay. The author uses some terms and words that I hardly ever see in westerns, such as having characters refer to each other as hairpins. I was also surprised to see a building called a bungalow. Many of the characters enjoy a smoke and often light up a cigaret, which later on is called a cigarette, then switches back to being a cigaret. Was this an author or publisher mistake? 

Tom West is a pseudonym used by Fred East, and this is only the second book I can remember reading by him. I really enjoyed the first one, Bitter Brand, and The Toughest Town in the Territory started so well, was full of potential, and Tex is an interesting hero. Once Tex has settled into his new job the story is held together by trying to bring law to Prairie City and becomes a series of unrelated incidents that Tex has to tackle. The promise of a showdown between Tex and forty ranch hands had me looking forward to an exciting action-packed finale but I was to be severely let down as the book took a ridiculous turn, making for the worst ending I’ve ever read. In fact, I had to re-read a few paragraphs to make sure I hadn’t imagined what I’d read, but no, this unbelievably stupid ending was real. What on earth was the author thinking?

Bitter Brand left me wanting to read more of Tom West’s work. If I’d read The Toughest Town in the Territory first, I very much doubt I’d have picked up another book by this author. I have three more West books in my collection, so the question now is will I ever read them? Maybe I’ll try one more but it won’t be anytime soon.

My copy of The Toughest Town in the Territory is part an Ace Double, the other story being Guns at Q Cross by Merle Constiner. 

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