Friday, February 19, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Buntline Special - Lou Cameron

Lou Cameron is an important figure in paperback history for a couple of reasons. First of all, he had a long career stretching back into the Fifties as an author of paperback originals in a wide variety of genres: mystery, war, adventure, science fiction, TV tie-ins, and movie novelizations. Then, in the mid-Seventies, he created the most popular and prolific Adult Western series in LONGARM. It wasn’t the first Adult Western series – there’s considerable debate about which one deserves that title – but since the first book was published in 1978, the series has rolled along for more than thirty years with a new title every single month (sometimes two in one month), until there are nearly 400 regular Longarm novels, plus 27 oversized Longarm Giant novels, with more to come and no end in sight. The books don’t sell like they used to (at their peak, the Longarm novels sold more than 100,000 copies each, a number that’s almost unheard of today when you’re talking about Westerns), but they still move steadily off the shelves. Several Spur Award-winning authors have contributed to the series under the Tabor Evans house-name. Cameron himself falls into that category, having won a Spur in 1976 for his novel THE SPIRIT HORSES. Longarm is one of the great success stories in genre paperbacks, and it came after Cameron already had quite a reputation as an author.

Cameron didn’t concentrate solely on Longarm after creating the series, though. He contributed to a few other Adult Western series, including a couple that he created and wrote all the books himself: STRINGER under his own name and RENEGADE (really more of an adventure series set in Central and South America, although they were marketed as Westerns) as by Ramsey Thorne. He also wrote a few stand-alone traditional Westerns for Gold Medal (by then an imprint of Ballantine), which brings us to THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL.

This novel from 1988, which as far as I know has never been reprinted, has a fairly traditional plot. In the mid-1890s, a young cowboy named Matt Taylor rides into the town of Freewater, Colorado (which actually straddles the state line between Colorado and Kansas) looking for a crooked trail boss who absconded with the wages owed to Matt and the other cowhands who drove a herd of cattle up the Ogallala Trail. Matt winds up finding the man he’s looking for, but that’s just the beginning. He becomes the deputy to Freewater’s town marshal, a legendary gunman named Big Bill Burton who carries one of the long-barreled revolvers of the title. Matt quickly grows into the job of being a lawman, stopping a bank robbery and engaging in a couple of shoot-outs that gain him a reputation and some enemies who want him dead.

The story sort of ambles along in episodic fashion as Matt deals with a number of criminal cases that arise while he’s wearing a badge in Freewater. He also romances a couple of beautiful women, the town schoolmarm and the local doctor. Since this is a traditional Western, the courting is very decorous, not at all like Cameron’s Longarms. The plot works its way toward an ending that you’ll likely see coming, although Cameron does throw in a nice little twist as he wraps everything up.

So why should you read THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL? There are several reasons. Despite the predictability of the plot, Cameron peoples it with some colorful and well-drawn – and in the case of his hero Matt, very likable – characters. Not everybody turns out to be exactly what you expect them to be. Also, episodic or not, the book never really slows down. Cameron had plenty of experience at keeping the reader flipping the pages, and it shows here. There are some nice cameo appearances by actual historical characters such as Charlie Siringo, Will Rogers, and Bill Tilghman, and a brief bit that offers a clue as to the later history of one Custis Long, aka Longarm. If Cameron says something about ol’ Custis, you have to take it as gospel, in my opinion.

What I really like most about this book, though, is Cameron’s distinctive voice. For much of his career, he wrote in a pretty standard action paperback style, but over the years it began to evolve into a more colorful use of language. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it reminds me of the dialogue in the TV series DEADWOOD, without all the cussin’. This makes it easy to identify the Longarms that Cameron wrote (and to be honest, he got to the point where he overdid it in that series, in my opinion), but it works perfectly in THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL, making everything in the book sound absolutely and grittily real. You might not like it – the style is eccentric enough so that I can see how it might rub some readers the wrong way – but I think this is one of the best Westerns I’ve read in a good long while, and I highly recommend it.

26 comments:

RJR said...

James, you kept referring to Lou in thepast tense. He's still alive and kicking, right?

RJR

David Cranmer said...

I would read pretty much anything Cameron put out. What a trailblazer!

And thanks for all the history I would have otherwise missed.

Juri said...

I've read one crime novel by Cameron and one war novel by Cameron, and both were quite good: BARCA (1975) and THE BIG RED BALL (which Fantastic Fiction says is from 1969, but I think it's earlier). And, umm, now that I look at the FF listing again, I notice also THE HOT CAR from the early eighties, but don't really remember much of it.

Juri said...

And yes, Robert, the Wikipedia article says only that he was born in 1924, so he should be alive.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, James. I've heard of the LONGARM series but not this.

James Reasoner said...

Yes, Cameron is still alive as far as I know, and I think somebody would have heard if he'd passed away. I guess I used the past tense because he's retired from writing (also as far as I know).

Fred Blosser said...

THE BLACK CAMP (Gold Medal) and THE FIRST BLOOD (Lancer) are other solid WWII novels by Cameron. Juri is right, BIG RED BALL was published by GM in 1961. I liked EAGLE CHIEF, from around the same time as BUNTLINE SPECIAL. An interesting take on the reviled Col. Chivington of Sand Creek infamy. I've got 3-4 other Cameron Gold Medals that I haven't gotten around to reading.

George said...

I'm going to have to root around in my GOLD MEDAL collection and unearth some of these Lou Cameron books. I remember reading BIG RED BALL long ago.

Evan Lewis said...

I'm a sucker for anything about Buntlines. There was a lot of great info in Lee Silva's massive Wyatt Earp, A Biography of the Legend, Vol. 1.

I stashed away some of the early numbers of Longarm and his competitors, thinking they'd be collectible someday. Are we there yet?

Richard Robinson said...

Great review, James. I keep feeling the pull of western fiction, due to the many fans in the round of blogs I regularly visit, but am often disappointed when I read any of it - which is mostly short story collections - though I liked your story in Fatal Frontier, which I'm working through now - but this sounds pretty interesting. Probably hard to find, yes?

James Reasoner said...

I don't think any of the Adult Westerns are collectible yet. Maybe in another twenty years.

There are ten copies of THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL listed on ABE, with prices starting at a buck and going up to four dollars (plus shipping, of course). I found my copy at Half Price Books, but I don't know often they turn up in used bookstores.

Anonymous said...

This looks like a good Western. Thanks for the review and heads up, James.

Ed Lynskey

Todd Mason said...

His CYBERNIA kicked around our house in my childhood, and I'd been vaguely aware of his prolificity and protean talent, but have yet to seek out his other work. Past time...thanks for the intel.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I can recommend THE SPIRIT HORSES, which was about the short-lived experiment to equip the U.S. Cavalry with camels.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Is this one, or other Lou Camerons, available online? There's quite a few (though not all) of his longarms available on amazon kindle, and this one - buntline special - seems to be totally out of print.

So - seeing it isnt going to be too much of a spoiler considering the book is really hard to get now - what is that factoid about custis long?

James Reasoner said...

I agree, this one is totally out of print and probably has been since shortly after it was published. The thing about Custis isn't some big revelation, anyway. The protagonist in the book, which is set in the mid-1890s, receives a telegram from "Marshal Long, Denver, Colorado", which could mean that Longarm is still a Deputy U.S. Marshal, but the context leads me to believe that by then he's the chief marshal, replacing Billy Vail. Anyway, we know he survives his own series, which is set ca. 1880.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Well yes - he was the senior marshal and billy was rather getting on in years, the implication being that he was a bit past retirement age all through the series - at least in the lou cameron ones.

One thing about Lou was that he actually knew his old west guns instead of issuing a generic colt .45 and a winchester to everybody in the story.

So - not at all sure where he got the idea of a lawman with a "buntline special" - a presentation model colt with a foot long barrel that dime novelist Ned Buntline gave to like five people .. with even that being apocryphal, no real proof of it - even with Earp, who lived long enough to be a consultant to early hollywood westerns, and has a rather detailed biography by Stuart Lake (yes, its got its own faults but...).

As for Buntline, Lou, and Longarm, made a long running point, repeated over several books, of (correctly in my opinion) regarding Edward Zane Carroll Judson (aka Ned Buntline) as an "asshole" for his descriptions of people + over colorized nicknames like buffalo bill / wild bill etc.

That and another often repeated quote in the Cameron books about Longarm promising to kick the shit out of Buntline if he ever printed any similar colorful rumor about him - especially after Hickok was shot in Deadwood and Cody became a showman.

I am not sure WHY Lou wanted to write a book about any lawman owning that near fictional revolver (which colt started to mass produce "as a buntline special" in the 1950s thanks to Hollywood making it real popular).

Of course they did produce revolvers with extra long barrels, but only made to order, and those were exceedingly rare - more likely to be used as presentation pieces rather than as a "working gun". In fact four out of five lawmen Buntline presented his to - if you belive the legend - are supposed to have cut the length down to the standard 7 3/4 "army" length barrels, only Earp retaining his to be a foot long (if you do believe the legend enough to follow i tup).

Cameron was stating pure fact when he said that the Frontier Model colt (chambered in .44-40 to match the Winchester '73) was rather popular in the 1880s and 90s.

Oh another thing. Cattle drives? Down the ogallala trail ok .. in the mid 1890s? Even texas had got pretty decent rail connectivity by then, and meat packing plants + railheads near most high concentrations of ranching areas.

Cameron did say that Longarm was part of the first large cattle drives over the Goodnight - Loving trail etc back before he became a deputy marshal, and he has taken a herd over even as a lawman, about once that I can remember in over a hundred of his that I've read, with large parts of texas still having no railroad connectivity in the early to mid 1880s (which was starting to change even back then).

I've got a high degree of respect for Lou - where old west history is concerned, he never did put a foot wrong.

So - I'd be interested in why he wrote this (unless it was like a publisher gave him a storyline, one that'd be far more suited to, say, about the mid to late 1870s than the mid 1890s, and he then decided to bump the timeline up a decade or two).

James Reasoner said...

Yeah, I thought some of the history was a little sketchy on this one, too, but just enjoyed it as a story.

The business about Buntline presenting the guns to the five lawmen actually figures into the plot, and it's one of those cases where not everything is as it seems. Can't go into any more detail about that without venturing into spoiler territory.

Sarah said...

YES-Lou is alive and well. His birthday is the end of June, and he's just as alive & kicking as can be-soon to be 86.
This thread cracks me up, it's great you all seem to like the books Lou likes most himself. Longarm is just now being reissued by the publisher from the beginning.
As far as his historical accuracy-bet your bottom dollar that man did his research.He actually has commendations for historical accuracy from Libraries in the Dakotas. (Forget which, but it was marked at my Library as such.) -Sarah Cameron Miles

James Reasoner said...

Sarah,
Thanks for confirming that Lou is still with us. He's a great talent.

R. Fester said...

Just spoke with Lou Cameron's daughter. He is currently living in New York...

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