Friday, March 05, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Range Robbers - Oliver Strange

Oliver Strange (1871–1952) was an Englishman who worked as an editor for a British publishing company during the first half of the Twentieth Century. But he also wanted to be a writer and obviously had a fondness for American Westerns, because when he tried his hand at writing a novel, the result was THE RANGE ROBBERS, a book that’s very much the literary equivalent of an American B-Western film or pulp novel.

THE RANGE ROBBERS introduces Strange’s famous character Sudden, and it proved popular enough that over the next couple of decades he wrote nine more novels featuring Sudden. After Strange’s death, the series was continued for five more novels written by Frederick Nolan under the name Frederick H. Christian. Even though THE RANGE ROBBERS was the first book published, when Strange continued the series he backtracked in the character’s history and occasionally went forward, so the publication order isn’t the same as the chronological order.

When we meet Sudden in this one, he’s pretending to be a drifting cowboy named Green. In fairly short order, it becomes obvious why he’s adopted a new identity: Sudden is a famous gunfighter and outlaw who’s wanted for various crimes all over the West. Like many a pulp outlaw, however, he’s not really to blame for most of the offenses that have been attributed to him. Despite his reputation, he’s an honorable man, a fast shot, a great fighter, and a steadfast friend. When he goes to work on a ranch owned by an old-timer who’s having trouble with rustlers, if you’ve read very many pulp novels or watched very many B-Westerns, you’ll know exactly what’s going to happen.

In fact, there’s nothing really new in THE RANGE ROBBERS, although when it was published the plot elements hadn’t had enough time to become quite the clichés that they are now. You’ve got the elderly rancher with the beautiful daughter, the rustlers, the magnificent horse that nobody else can ride, the white villains pretending to be Indians, and so forth. One of the bad guys even kicks a dog so you'll know that he's really bad. So why read this book?

Well, for one thing, even though THE RANGE ROBBERS is a fairly long novel, Strange never lets the pace slow down for very long. It’s full of incident and colorful characters and well-written action scenes. There’s a lot of Western slang and dialect that takes some getting used to, but that was common for the time period. Even though Strange never visited the U.S., his descriptions of the landscape are vivid and reasonably accurate. He was expert at crafting confrontations between the heroes and the villains, and along the way he adds some psychological drama to the plot reminiscent of the work of Max Brand and Walt Coburn. The two big twists near the end are predictable but satisfying.

THE RANGE ROBBERS is an old-fashioned, traditional Western and very entertaining for fans of that genre, which includes me. I have a couple of other Sudden novels and plan to read them soon. If you’re interested, there’s a lot of information about Strange, the Sudden series, and its history here. (Be sure and scroll down to the post by Fred Nolan.)


Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Enjoyed the review, and glad you liked the book as much as I did.

One thing that Oliver Strange kind of pioneered was the dry, humorous one-liner (and even today there are very few western authors who can pull that off as well as Strange did)

By the way - I remember at least one book where he introduces himself "Green. The name is Jim Green. They also call me Sudden."

Wonder whether Ian Fleming (or was it whoever wrote the dialog for the early Bond movies) read that.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Interesting the idea of people across the ocean liking the genre and trying to capture it.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Some of the most successful westerns were written by people who had never been anywhere near the west. JT Edson (the floating outfit series) was quoted as saying "I've no desire to have lived in the Wild West, and I've never even been on a horse. I've seen those things and they look highly dangerous at both ends and bloody uncomfortable in the middle."

Randy Johnson said...

I've looked into some of these before, but the prices seem a bit daunting for me.

Soames said...

That's a great comment about the horse. Another western, and still I struggle with the genre. Maybe I should just stick with OTR listening?

James, what do you consider to be the top western in terms of both writing and storytelling?

George said...

I'll have to track down some Oliver Strange.

James Reasoner said...

It's hard to narrow it down to one book, but I'll just throw this out: the novel SHANE is just as much a classic as the movie. If anybody else has suggestions for all-time best Western novel, I'd love to see 'em.

And I just realized that the link I put at the end of this post didn't come through, so I'll fix that.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Which is probably why, Suresh, the Edson book I read was godawful.

WV: Destra--the guy who rides again (other than the Toyman).

James Reasoner said...

I'll admit, I'm fond of many of the J.T. Edson books. I'll also admit that most of his later books weren't very good. But the ones from the early Sixties are great. Not very realistic, even then, but I thought they were a lot of fun.

I've heard lots of stories about Edson's antics at WWA conventions. He was a colorful character, to say the least.

Richard Prosch said...

Terrific post. There's so very many writers I've not even heard about, let alone read!

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

@Cap'n, some of the early JT Edsons were great. He got older, way too popular so started recycling plots, thinning his plots out and filling the book in with recycled background material on his main characters.. the series went downhill all the way.

@James, 100% agreed on Shane, both the Jack Schaefer book and the Alan Ladd movie. As for my favorite westerns -

* Elmore Leonard 3:10 from Yuma

* Louis L'Amour - Reilly's Luck

* Lou Cameron's first Longarm (titled Longarm)

* Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist (the duke's last movie that, about a gunfighter dying from cancer, in an age when the gunfighter was a dying breed)

If you want movies -

* Gregory Peck's "The Gunfighter" (and listen to Bob Dylan's "Brownsville Girl" - tells the story of that wonderful, wonderful movie)

* High Noon (and absolutely hated Rio Bravo, it'd have been a great movie by itself if Hawks hadnt consciously tried to trash High Noon every second he got)

* Stagecoach

* The man who killed Liberty Valance

* My Darling Clementine

* The Outlaw Josey Wales (even more so than other clint eastwoods.. I'd have said A Fistful of Dollars, but I saw Kurosawa's Yojimbo first)

James Reasoner said...

I agree with you on all those movies except RIO BRAVO, which I love. I'd seen it quite a few times before I ever knew about its connection with HIGH NOON, so that didn't affect my opinion of it.

I remember liking REILLY'S LUCK, but my favorite L'Amour novels are FLINT and TO TAME A LAND.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Flint is nice, to tame a land is quite good too. How about "Long ride home"? Two kids (a five year old and a toddler) get separated from a wagon train in an indian attack in midwinter somewhere like wyoming or montana, high country anyway - this in the 1850s or so I guess. A couple of outlaws after them, an indian after their horse - and their dad (an army scout) trying to find them.

Viagra Sales said...

This kind of pulps were typical in that years. They are real classics of their respective genres. This one looks very exciting.

Anonymous said...

Sudden was one of the fictional characters my generation read fondly during school days- Fast with his colt, furious with his fists and righteous to a fault. I still have most of these novels after 40 years.