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.