Friday, February 18, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Pirate of Panama - William MacLeod Raine

William MacLeod Raine is best remembered (by those few of us who remember him at all) for his many Westerns published over a productive career that lasted several decades. But he wrote other sorts of books, too, such as this adventure novel that was first published in 1914.

I think this quote from early in the book will give you a pretty good idea both of Raine’s style and the sort of novel this is:

“Those who find interest only in the conventional had better read no farther. For this true tale runs red with the primal emotions of the old buccaneers. It is a story of love and hate, of heroism and cowardice, of treasure-trove and piracy on the high seas, of gaping wounds and foul murder. If this is not to your taste, fall out. My story is not for you.”

If you can read that and not want to go on, well, then, you’re not an old geezer who never really grew up, like me. However, there are a couple of things about that passage that are misleading. THE PIRATE OF PANAMA isn’t a true story at all, of course, but fictional through and through. And it’s not a historical pirate yarn set in the days of the Spanish Main, either. It’s a contemporary story (contemporary to 1914, anyway) in which a young San Francisco lawyer who yearns for adventure finds himself in the middle of a plot involving a beautiful young woman, her villainous cousin, and a fortune in pirate loot buried in a Panamanian cove a hundred years earlier. Of course there’s a treasure map for everybody to fight over, a race at sea to reach the loot first, stowaways, battles, blazing guns and bloody cutlasses. Good Western writer that he is, Raine even finds a plausible way to get an Arizona cowboy and former Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt into the middle of the action.

Like a lot of fiction from this era, the plot is driven largely by coincidence and contrivance, and Raine’s writing style is pretty creaky at times. To be honest, most modern readers would probably find this book unbearably hokey and silly.

But if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind (and obviously, I can), THE PIRATE OF PANAMA is a very entertaining novel, an old-fashioned blood-and-thunder rip-snorter. I would have loved it if I’d read it when I was ten years old, and I enjoyed it now. The edition I read is a Grosset & Dunlap hardcover reprint, probably from the 1920s, that I came across at Half Price Books. I think there’s a more recent POD reprint available, and I know it's available as an e-book for the Kindle if you’re interested in checking it out.


Jack Badelaire said...

Interesting - if I can clear out my slush pile a little, I'll have to give this one a read.

Steve Lewis said...

My kind of book also. One criterion for a good review is that it makes you run out and buy a copy of the book, which I've just done, and I didn't even have to leave my computer.

"unbearably hokey and silly"? Maybe, but I guess I'm just as old a geezer as you are, James.

Or young.

Todd Mason said...

The passage doesn't have the poetic quality of Kipling's prose, but I've certainly read worse from others of their time. I doubt I'd fall out at that point.

Walker Martin said...

I read this novel a few years ago in THE CAVALIER MAGAZINE. It ran as a serial in January 1914. Somehow the western fiction of Raine never really impressed me but this novel was of interest to me since I'm also a lover of buried treasure yarns.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks for the info, Walker. I haven't read much by Raine yet. While I don't think he'll ever be a favorite of mine, the books I've read have been pretty entertaining.