I’ve known Jimmy Butts for several years and have read and enjoyed some of his house-name Westerns, but I’d never read one of the novels under his own name until now. The subtitle of HELL TO PAY is “The Life and Violent Times of Eli Gault”, and that’s a pretty good description of the book. It’s a first-person account of a Texas badman, the son of a crazed itinerant preacher who winds up killing his father in self-defense. Eli doesn’t necessarily set out to become an outlaw and a murderer, but circumstances continue forcing him in that direction.
Then he meets up with a gunfighter named Cutter Sharpe, who becomes a sort of surrogate father to him, teaching him how to handle a gun (for which Eli has a natural talent) and also how to play poker, which becomes Eli’s principal means of support. Eventually Eli and Sharpe go their separate ways, and Eli continues drifting. He even tries to settle down and lead a law-abiding life at times, going so far as to become a deputy marshal at one point, as well as joining a cattle drive to the railhead in Kansas, but sooner or later trouble crops up again and Eli’s natural tendency is to shoot his way out of it.
Butts really delivers the goods in this novel: colorful characters, headlong narrative drive, and plenty of gritty action, all told in a stripped down, distinctive style that reminded me of the hardboiled crime writer Paul Cain (FAST ONE, SEVEN SLAYERS). Eli Gault is a great character, reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford. He’s as friendly and likable as he can be, until it comes time for him to gun down somebody else in cold blood. His story builds up to a powerful ending, and after finishing it, I can say definitely that I’ll be reading more by J. Lee Butts. If you enjoy hardboiled Westerns, HELL TO PAY comes highly recommended by me.