Friday, December 17, 2010

Forgotten Books: Shotgun Gold - W.C. Tuttle

W.C. Tuttle was a prolific author for the Western and general fiction pulps, turning out hundreds of stories and dozens of novels from the mid-Teens through the Fifties. SHOTGUN GOLD is an early novel of his that features what I think is his best character, range detective Hashknife Hartley.

It takes a while for Hashknife and his partner, Sleepy Stevens, to show up in this one. Tuttle starts out by establishing the long-time rivalry between ranch owners Moses Conley and Franklyn Moran, who had a falling-out over a business deal twenty-five years earlier. The situation is aggravated now by the fact that Moran’s son Jim is in love with Conley’s daughter Dawn. (Yes, it’s the old Romeo and Juliet plot, transferred to the cattle country of the Southwest.) Conley has a problem with his hot-tempered son Pete, too, when Pete winds up in jail charged with murdering a gambler. Then some butchered cattle belonging to Moran turn up on Conley’s range, followed by Conley getting shot and Jim Moran being found standing over the body with a smoking gun in his hand. Throw in a cabal of gamblers who want to take over the town, and you’ve got a pretty complicated plot for Hashknife to straighten out, which is nothing unusual in a Tuttle novel. Some of his plots rival those of Erle Stanley Gardner for complexity.

Hashknife is a great character, on the surface a typical slow-moving and apparently slow-witted cowboy who sort of ambles around like a frontier Columbo, asking pertinent questions here and there and observing everything and everybody. When trouble breaks out, though, as it always does, he’s fast on the draw and plenty tough. Hashknife is usually two steps ahead of everybody else in the book in his thinking, and he needs to be here as Tuttle keeps throwing in plot twists almost right up to the final page. Some of them you might see coming, but I’ll bet you won’t be able to predict all of them. I certainly didn’t. Tuttle also provides a lot of humor in his books, including some shenanigans that can only be described as slapstick – with bullets. Sleepy Stevens is a comic sidekick part of the time, although he can be pretty tough when he needs to be, too, and there are plenty of other colorful cow country characters. Tuttle is big on nicknames, as well. In addition to Hashknife and Sleepy, the sheriff in SHOTGUN GOLD is called Roaring Rigby, and there are cowboys known as Wind River Jim, Lovely Lucas (so-called because he’s so big and ugly), and Horse Collar Fields.

Tuttle started writing Hashknife and Sleepy stories around 1920, in the pages of the pulp ADVENTURE. The characters appeared in numerous other pulps over the years, including ARGOSY and SHORT STORIES. The concept of a pair of range detectives proved to be popular. Tuttle himself revisited it in a long series of novelettes in EXCITING WESTERN featuring characters called Tombstone and Speedy. These stories are a little different in that Tombstone isn’t nearly as smart as Hashknife and usually solves his cases more by dumb luck than anything else, but they’re still enjoyable yarns. Harry Sinclair Drago, writing under his pseudonym Bliss Lomax, turned out a number of novels featuring range detectives Rainbow Ripley and Grumpy Gibbs, and Norman A. Fox threw his hat in the ring with his novels about Rowdy Dow and Stumpy Grampis. Although to be fair, Rainbow and Grumpy, and Rowdy and Stumpy, seem to have been influenced as much by Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes as by Hashknife and Sleepy, if not more so.

Then you’ve got the cover of the Popular Library edition from 1950, with art by Kirk Wilson. These characters don’t really look like anybody in the book (although the guy could be Jim Moran), but boy, that pistol-packin’ redhead is something. She really knows how to wear a yellow shirt and a pair of jeans. There’s a good reason red and yellow are the predominant colors on so many Western pulp and paperback covers. This one really catches your eye, doesn’t it?

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my post on RESCUED IN THE CLOUDS that the writing was pretty old-fashioned, as you might expect from a book first published in 1927. Well, SHOTGUN GOLD originally came out in 1927, too, but the writing is clean and fast-paced and almost slick enough to have been published now. Some of the humor is a little dated and corny, but of course that doesn’t bother an old codger like me. I really enjoyed this one, and if you like Western mysteries, you can’t go wrong with SHOTGUN GOLD or just about anything else by W.C. Tuttle.


George said...

I've seen W. C. Tuttle books in used bookstores, but never bought one. I will now! Any book that can hold up after 80+ years is worth reading.

James Reasoner said...

George, I think you'll enjoy Tuttle's work, although some of his books are definitely more slapsticky than others. All the Hashknife novels are fairly serious, though certainly with their comedic elements.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

This sounds very nice indeed, if I can get a copy anywhere.

Cut to the next 'range detective' - at least, to the next guy who goes around the old west solving crimes - longarm.

When's your next one coming? :)

James Reasoner said...

#387 LONGARM AND THE PANAMINT PANIC will be out in January, followed by #390 LONGARM AND THE BLOODY RELIC in April.

Todd Mason said...

I'm definitely going to need to read some good, non-late Tuttle some day soon.

wv: mizines

Evan Lewis said...

I have this paperback and pretty fair pile of other Hashknife books and pulps. Started picking them up after Harlan Ellison raved about them somewhere. Fun stuff.

James Reasoner said...

I wouldn't have taken Harlan Ellison for a Hashknife fan, but what do I know? I recall that Ellison was friends with Louis L'Amour.

Richard R. said...

At first glance I thought this was going to be one of a series of young reader serial books in the vein of Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr, Chip Hilton, etc. Truth is, after reading the review, I'm disappointed they aren't as they might be more easily found. It's just possible I know someone who has one of them.

Ron Scheer said...

Found a copy of THICKER THAN WATER, which I plan to read soon. Thanks.