Friday, July 16, 2010

Forgotten Books: Gun Hand - Frank O'Rourke

Frank O’Rourke is another Western author who was successful for a long time, publishing his novels regularly in hardback and seeing at least one of them turned into a well-regarded movie: THE PROFESSIONALS, which was based on O’Rourke’s novel A MULE FOR THE MARQUESA.

However, I recall reading a couple of his books in high school and not liking them all that much. But when I recently ran across a copy of his novel GUN HAND, I decided it was time to give his work another try.

This one opens with the protagonist, John McCabe, locked up in a crooked marshal’s jail for a crime he didn’t commit. McCabe manages to escape, along with a Mexican gunfighter and outlaw, Ramon Vargas. Although they take different trails, they both wind up in the Dakota Territory town of Nioebe, which serves as a stopover and supply point for miners headed to the gold fields in the Black Hills.

Also arriving in Nioebe about the same time are Charley Atchley and the gang of desperadoes he leads. Naturally, it’s not long before McCabe and Atchley clash, but although the town leaders try to convince McCabe to take the job of marshal, he stubbornly refuses, having already dealt with too much violence in his life. But of course any Western reader knows that eventually he’ll be pushed too far and have to take action.

There’s not much in the basic plot of GUN HAND that will surprise anybody who’s read very many Westerns, but O’Rourke excels in a couple of areas that make the book well worth reading. His characterization is very good, and as a result the romantic triangle between McCabe and two women is a little deeper and more believable than the same situation in many other novels. I was pretty sure how things would play out, but I wasn’t absolutely certain, and more than that, I wasn’t sure which of the women he ought to pick. Ramon Vargas is a fine character, as well, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose side he would take in the end. Also, the action scenes are gritty and brutal and very effective, especially a scene where McCabe deals with a bushwhacker who’s shooting at him from the top of a building. The final showdown is good, too. A lousy showdown can ruin a book.

The biggest flaw in this novel is that O’Rourke’s prose tends to plod a little at times. The pace always picks back up pretty quickly, though, so it’s not enough to keep me from recommending GUN HAND. Originally published in 1953, it was reprinted by Signet in 1968 and that edition is easy to find. If you’re a Western fan and come across it, pick it up and give it a try. I intend to read more of Frank O’Rourke’s work.


George said...

I've read several Frank O'Rourke westerns and have enjoyed them all. As you point out, his skill at characterizations is Rourke's strong suit.

Richard R. said...

In my experience, an author's ability to present solid characterization, along with a good sense of place, can take a ho-hum novel up a notch or more, and often can overcome a weak or trite plot.

Richard Heft said...

THE BRAVADOS with Gregory Peck was also based on a Frank O'Rourke novel. I like his books as well (particularly BLACKWATER), but they often threaten to become dull (in spite of its title, VIOLENCE AT SUNDOWN actually does become dull).


Yet another name to look out for - I'll keep my eyes peeled when out and about the markets. Sounds great.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see that Frank O'Rourke is still being read. A fine writer. He didn't just write westerns, he also penned some romances, historical novels, many short stories, some with a sports theme (baseball).
He obviously had a quick mind; his stories move fast and when one begins another of his books, it's a case of: "Hold on tight, I'm in for another wild ride!" He wrote complex plots and as noted by others, was a master at character. I have read several of his books and continue to do so.