Friday, July 31, 2015

Forgotten Books: The Sheriff of Painted Post - Tom Gunn (Syl MacDowell)

Tom Gunn was the primary pseudonym of prolific Western pulpster Syl MacDowell. It may have been used as a house-name from time to time, but my impression is that Tom Gunn was usually MacDowell. And he's certainly the author of the long-running Painted Post series, which appeared in POPULAR WESTERN for almost twenty years. MacDowell took a number of the early stories, combined and expanded them into novels, and then sold them to the hardcover publisher Julian Messner. Some of them subsequently appeared as paperback reprints from Pocket Books.

THE SHERIFF OF PAINTED POST is the first of those paperback editions, and although it doesn't say so anywhere in the book, it's a "fix-up" of the first three stories in the series: "The Sheriff of Painted Post" (POPULAR WESTERN, November 1934), "Blue Steele Rides Again" (December 1934), and "Painted Post Pizen" (February 1935). The Julian Messner hardback edition came out later in 1935, the Pocket Books paperback in 1951. That's the edition I read, and the cover scan is from my copy.

With all that bibliographic information out of the way, how's the story, you ask? Well, it's pretty darned good. The paperback cover by Edward Vebell and the cover copy are spoilers, but it doesn't matter much because MacDowell reveals to the reader almost right away that the mysterious stranger who rides out of the lava hills is a wanted outlaw named "Wolf" Gray. Gray has escaped from prison in Idaho, but he's basically a decent sort who wants to put his owlhoot past behind him. He decides to take the name Smith, but when he encounters a happy-go-lucky cowpoke named Shorty Watts, a misunderstanding leads to the stranger being called Blue Steele instead, and the name sticks. The two new friends ride on to the nearby town of Painted Post, the center of some rangeland being plagued by the sinister rustler El Scorpio, and wouldn't you know it, the local sheriff is murdered by one of the outlaws just as Steele and Shorty arrive. Steele guns down the killer before the varmint can escape, so naturally enough, the citizens of Painted Post decide that he should be the new sheriff. What better way to break from his outlaw past than by becoming a lawman, Steele thinks, so he agrees, but only on the condition that he can have Shorty as his deputy.

As you can tell from that description of the opening couple of chapters, this is pure Western pulp, the sort of thing you've read in scores of stories and novels and seen in countless B-movies. Steele and Shorty go on to break up El Scorpio's gang and bring the ringleader to justice in the first section of the novel. The second involves competing cattle drives that play a part in the ongoing war between Painted Post and the neighboring town of Los Palos, a struggle that's complicated by the arrival of hated sheep in the area, and in the third and final section of the book, Sheriff Steele's lawless past not only crops up again, but Painted Post is threatened by a dam project that will put the town underwater. Interesting plots, but very traditional, nothing ground-breaking here.

But if it's pure pulp, MacDowell does it very well. Steele's background gives him a little more depth than some of the Western pulp heroes, rather than him being just another gun-dummy, and Shorty is a fine sidekick, tough and competent when he needs to be despite functioning as the comedy relief most of the time. There's a little too much "Yuh mangy polecat!" dialogue for my taste, but you have to expect that from the era. MacDowell's action scenes are top-notch, and he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. I liked this one enough that I checked my shelves and found the other Pocket Books reprint I have, PAINTED POST GUNPLAY, and ordered a couple more on-line. Plus I have quite a few issues of POPULAR WESTERN with Painted Post stories in them, and I'll get around to those eventually.

Oddly enough, considering that I liked this one, Syl MacDowell is also the author of what is probably my least-favorite Western pulp series, the Swap and Whopper stories that ran in THRILLING WESTERN. I've always thought I really ought to like those because the lead characters were clearly inspired by Abbott and Costello and I love Abbott and Costello. But the stories are really slapsticky and Western comedies walk a pretty thin line with me. The only author who seems able to succeed consistently in that genre as far as I'm concerned is W.C. Tuttle, and I think that's because Tuttle wrote good solid Westerns that had comedy in them, instead of the other way around.

THE SHERIFF OF PAINTED POST falls into the same category, a solid Western with some comedy. I doubt if I'll ever consider Syl MacDowell in the upper ranks of Western pulp authors along with Tuttle, Walt Coburn, T.T. Flynn, and many others, but I'll definitely read more of his work.


Scott Parker said...

I'm glad you mentioned western comedy. I wrote a piece this summer that I intended to be humorous. It's a lot harder that I thought it would be. Now that I've got Tuttle's name, I can be on the look out for his material and learn from the best.

Cap'n Bob said...

Good review, yuh mangy polecat!