Friday, November 19, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Iron Trail - Jackson Cole (Peter Germano)

Warning: Nostalgia ahead.

When I was in high school, my favorite class was . . . study hall. We weren’t required to take study hall, you understand, but I always did, and for one simple reason. Most of my teachers would give us time in class to work on our homework, and I’d finish it there, leaving me with nothing to do in study hall but sit and read some library book or paperback. Yep, 55 minutes in the middle of an otherwise boring school day when I could spend some time with John Carter or Simon Templar or Shell Scott or Donald Lam and Bertha Cool.

The teacher in charge of study hall (which was located in an old converted World War II army barracks) was Coach Gilmore, one of the assistant football coaches. The coach, as you might expect, was a large, rather intimidating man who didn’t seem to care for the fact that I always sat there reading. One day he got up from his desk, walked over to where I was sitting, and loomed over me with a frown on his face.

“Reasoner, don’t you have any homework to do?”

“Already did it, Coach.”

“What kind of grades do you make, Reasoner?”

“All A’s, Coach.”

He looked at me for a second longer, then sighed, shook his head, and walked away.

(That was a slight exaggeration on my part. I usually made all A’s, but occasionally I made a B in P.E.)

All of which is my long-winded lead-in to the fact that I remember very well the first Jim Hatfield novel I read. It was a Popular Library paperback called GUNSLINGER’S RANGE, and I read it during study hall in that old barracks building (which is long gone, by the way, and the high school I attended then is now a junior high). I wasn’t a big fan of Westerns at the time – most of my reading consisted of mysteries and science fiction – but I read quite a few of them here and there. GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was great fun. I recall racing right through it, flipping the pages as fast as I could to get to the big showdown at the end between Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield and the three outlaws who had escaped from prison to hunt him down. That made me a Hatfield fan, and so I immediately started looking for more Jackson Cole paperbacks and discovered that there were a lot of them. Even then I checked copyright pages and such and noticed that GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was copyright in the Forties by Standard Magazines, or possibly by Better Publications (it doesn’t matter, it was the same outfit). I was already familiar with pulps, so it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Hatfield novels were reprints from some Western pulp.

Well, that pulp was TEXAS RANGERS, of course, which ran from 1936 to 1958, making it one of the last true pulps. Over the years I read all the Hatfield paperbacks I could find, learned more about the actual authors behind the Jackson Cole house-name, and even amassed a sizable collection of the original pulps (although it didn’t rival the collection of my friend Jim Griffin, who had the entire run before he donated it to the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco). Through the generosity of several people after the fire destroyed my original collection, I once again have quite a few issues of TEXAS RANGERS.

But what about “The Iron Trail”, you ask? It’s the lead novel in the January 1953 issue, which I read recently. In this case, the actual author is Peter Germano, who wrote quite a few of the Hatfield novels during the Fifties but is better known as the Western novelist Barry Cord. Germano was one of the best of the Hatfield authors, and “The Iron Trail” is a fine yarn that opens with a great scene in which outlaws attack a medicine show wagon that’s pulling a cage with a huge tiger in it. The medicine show is called Doc Pinkle’s Jungle Caravan, and Doc Pinkle sells a potent potion known as Tigereye Tonic, the Wonder Remedy. Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, also known as the Lone Wolf, who is riding into the area because a railroad baron building a spur line has been plagued by payroll holdups, interrupts the attack and from there is drawn into a fast-paced adventure featuring gunfights, double-crosses, and a hidden mastermind (and if you don’t spot said mastermind right away, you’ve never read a pulp Western or watched a B-Western movie, but that’s okay).

While the plot of “The Iron Trail” is pretty predictable, it has several things going for it that make it well worth reading. First is Germano’s usual lean, hardboiled prose, which makes for some fine action scenes. Then you’ve got off-beat elements like the presence of that tiger, and a great fight that takes place on top of a moving train. If you’ve read many of my Westerns, you know I like that sort of stuff, and the fact that this battle takes place while the train is racing over a high trestle makes it even better.

“The Iron Trail” probably isn’t in the top rank of Jim Hatfield novels, but it’s a solidly entertaining yarn. It hasn’t been reprinted since its original appearance, so it’s not like you can run out and grab a copy. But the paperback reprints of many other Hatfield novels are still fairly easy to find in used bookstores and on the Internet and usually aren’t very expensive. The quality of the stories varies, of course, as with any house-name series, but I’ve enjoyed nearly all the ones I’ve read, both in the pulps and in paperback. If you’re a Western fan and you run across one, I recommend that you give it a try.

By the way, as I said last week in my comment about reading Shadow novels while I was in college, Coach Gilmore didn’t know it, and I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but I really was studying when I was reading all those paperbacks in study hall, especially the Jim Hatfield novels, which years later had a definite impact on my career . . .

But that’s another story.


George said...

I have a stack of Jackson Cole westerns. I need to read one. Great reminiscence of study halls long ago. I did a lot a reading in study halls, too. But I was in a science fiction mode back then.

Charles Gramlich said...

Had to tell you that your story in "Desperadoes" has just become one of my favorite western tales of all time. I read it last night and had to run and tell Lana about it. Humorous, exciting, surprising. All around excellent.

James Reasoner said...

When you read a Jackson Cole novel, let me know the title and I can probably tell you who the actual author was, if you're interested. I forgot to mention in the post that the author of GUNSLINGER'S RANGE, the first Hatfield novel I read, was Tom Curry, who tied with Leslie Scott, the creator of the character, as the most prolific Hatfield author. I think they each wrote something like 55 of the novels.

That's "The Way to Cheyenne", isn't it? I've always thought that's one of the best short stories I've written, and I'm glad you liked it.

Jerry House said...

I, too, used high school study hall for reading. I had only one book confiscated during that time: Terry Southern's CANDY. (That book made the rounds of about four teachers before it was returned to me a week later with a thank you.)

James Reasoner said...

That's a great story. I don't think I ever had any books confiscated. One day I thought my algebra teacher (who was also the head football coach) was going to take one of my Shell Scott books away when I was reading it in his class, but it turned out he was a big Richard S. Prather fan and just wanted to talk about the books.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

In my senior year I managed three consecutive lunch periods. Since my house was literally 30 feet from the school house I went home and watched TV during that time. The only book I read during that time was FANNY HILL.

James Reasoner said...

Three consecutive lunch periods . . . That's impressive!

I've never read FANNY HILL. One of the many classics I've never gotten around to.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

They weren't what yoyu'd call school sanctioned, James. One was my official lunch, one was a study hall I ditched when library call was announced, and the final, which was for the last half of the year, was supposed to be another study hall once driver's ed was completed.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a good read, James. I'm halfway done a Luke Short that Leisure must've brought out before they got out of the mass market paperback market.

Ed Lynskey

Todd Mason said...

John Cleland doesn't hold up so well, but at his age...well, insert Viagra joke here...

I remember frontloading my senior year, as well, so that the second semester was pretty damned slack...AP courses, but nothing too scary there. I was the only kid who read books in my first high school's detention, I remember.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Fanny Hill wasnt bad at all - search for the illustrations by Paul Avril that accompanied the original editions. Lovingly hand colored porn, that.

Another one you might want to try - Venus in India, by "Charles Devreaux". I can tell you the guy's been in India. And the sex beats Fanny Hill hollow.

That's the kindle edition, you can also buy it in paperback. Kindle - just download kindle for the pc off, no need to buy a kindle.

Randy Johnson said...

My senor year, I only needed one credit(English) to graduate and, if I hadn't changed things around, would have had three study halls.

I'd wanted phys Ed II, but it was only available in the afternoons. I dropped it and took typing(a wise choice), along with Social Studies, so I got afternoons off to go my job(the local hamburger joint.

James Reasoner said...

Typing was one of the best and most helpful courses I took in high school. Not to mention the fact that the teacher was single, about 25, and very good-looking, which certainly didn't hurt. I even took Typing II the next year, but she didn't teach that one. I learned how to type on an electric typewriter, though. Typing I was all on manual typewriters. (Sounds positively prehistoric now, doesn't it?)

Todd Mason said...

Not to me...I had formal typing class on battered, humidity-ridden manuals in my Hawaiian hs...the year after the home computers had started showing up in my New Hampshire hs...but the Smith-Corona electric at home was my medium...the Commodore VIC-20 wasn't quite as good a word processor as its heirs would be...