Friday, January 04, 2013

Forgotten Books: The Prisoners - Matthew S. Hart (James Reasoner and Bill Crider)

I'm probably fudging a little by writing about a book I had a hand in, but the Cody's Law series is long out of print and probably won't ever be reprinted, so it's pretty much forgotten. Besides, Bill mentioned this book recently on an email group we both belong to, and I thought some of you might be interested in it. Warning: this post is as much memoir as it is about the book and has some behind-the-scenes stuff in it, so if that doesn't appeal to you, feel free to move on. My feelings won't be hurt, I promise.

The Cody's Law series came about because the Western editor at Bantam at the time had worked at Leisure earlier in his career and edited a series of Westerns by Roe Richmond about a Texas Ranger named Lashtrow. Some of you have probably read some of those books. Richmond must have been a believer in the freelancer's adage, "Never throw anything away." Because those Lashtrow novels were actually rewrites and expansions of novels that Richmond wrote for the pulp magazine TEXAS RANGERS during the Fifties, featuring Ranger Jim Hatfield. For the paperback version, Hatfield became "Lash" Lashtrow, but the supporting characters all remained the same.

The Bantam editor approached an editor at Book Creations Inc., the book packaging company I was doing a lot of work for at the time, and asked BCI to come up with a Texas Ranger series similar to the Lashtrow books. The editor at BCI was also an author and planned to write the first book in the series, and he asked me if I would continue it from there. I agreed, of course, since back then I never turned down work (I still don't turn it down very often, and only when I just don't have time to do anything else). As it turned out, the editor at BCI was too busy to write the book, so after doing an outline and a couple of chapters he gave it to me and told me to use whatever I wanted out of it. By this time he had mentioned the Roe Richmond/Lashtrow connection to me and asked me if I was familiar with those books. I just said that I was and didn't mention that I was very familiar with the original versions, having read dozens of issues of TEXAS RANGERS including some of Richmond's Jim Hatfield novels. I think I was the only one in this particular loop aware of the true origin of the Lashtrow books.

So I kept the outline, rewrote the first couple of chapters the editor had done, renamed the hero Sam Cody (I don't recall what his name was in the first draft), and finished the book, going one step further back than the Lashtrow books and basing my version very much on the Jim Hatfield character from TEXAS RANGERS, while still trying to make him a distinctive character in his own right, of course. Sam Cody was never a Jim Hatfield clone . . . but I tried to get that same sort of Western pulp hero spirit into the books.

So time went by and I wrote the first six books in the series, all published under the pseudonym Matthew S. Hart. I was doing a lot of other work for BCI, and the editor got worried that the workload might be too much for me. He wanted to bring in another author to write a couple of the books. I wasn't real crazy about this idea. I felt like I could do it all (a feeling that still gets me in trouble from time to time). But since BCI owned the series I couldn't really object.

The editor also wanted me to team up with yet another author on the other books, with me providing outlines and the other author doing first drafts, which I would then edit and polish. The person he had in mind was Bill Crider, who had written a couple of books for BCI.

Now, as it happens, Bill is my oldest friend in the writing business and a fine author, so I was pretty pleased with this arrangement. The first book we did together was #8 in the series, EAGLE PASS.

Which brings us to THE PRISONERS.

I've mentioned many times how Livia helps me with the plots on some of my books. She wrote a half-page outline for the book that became THE PRISONERS, which I developed into a much more detailed outline (the editors at BCI loved detailed outlines). The plot involves Sam Cody having to fetch in a prisoner from an isolated mansion on the West Texas plains during a freak blizzard and ice storm. The family that lives in the mansion is . . . unusual, to say the least, and gives Cody a lot of trouble as he tries to complete his assignment, which is also complicated by the captured outlaw. So after a while I started telling people that THE PRISONERS was the world's only vampire/lesbian/cannibal/incest Western. Which as far as I know it is. I believe that description is a little exaggerated, though, since I don't remember them being vampires. But I suppose they could have been.

What's odd is that despite all those bizarre elements, I think THE PRISONERS turned out to be a decent traditional Western with a stalwart hero, a villainous outlaw, and plenty of ridin' and shootin'. I'm not sure how we pulled all that together, but I believe we did.

On a related note, some years ago I was at a convention where Elmer Kelton was the Guest of Honor, and I wound up with the job of doing the GOH interview with him. During the interview I pointed out the rather strange juxtaposition of having the man widely regarded as the world's greatest living Western writer (and maybe the greatest Western writer of all time) sharing the podium with the co-author of the world's only vampire/lesbian/cannibal/incest Western. But hey, that's the writing business for you, isn't it? You never know who you're going to wind up sitting next to.

Copies of THE PRISONERS, and all the other Cody's Law books, can be found pretty cheaply on the Internet. I wrote #1 – 6, and Bill and I collaborated on #8, 9, 11, and 12. I think they're all solid, entertaining Westerns.

One more side note: the contract was supposed to run through #14, but after #12 had been turned in, Bantam told BCI they were cancelling the series. In fact, they not only cancelled Cody's Law in mid-contract, they cancelled the other three series I was working on for BCI at the same time, effectively putting me out of work, a condition that didn't last long, thank goodness. But for years after that whenever Livia and I got bad news, we would groan and say, "Oh, no! We've been Bantamed!"


Anonymous said...

On my copy Bill wrote, "This is NOT a cannibal vampire lesbian western."

It was pretty good, as I remember it. I'll have to look for the others.

Jeff M.

Todd Mason said...

Jeff: I hope your response was along the lines of: Way to spoil thing, there, Bill.

Todd Mason said...

Or, even, things.

Todd Mason said...

A clearer scan on the links page...

George said...

I'll have to find my copy of THE PRISONERS and actually read it! Any thoughts of offering this series as ebooks?

Steve M said...

This was the first Cody's Law book I bought. Really enjoyed it and then set out to get the rest. Great series.

Peter Brandvold said...

I love that kind of background stuff. Very interesting to me. Thanks for the great post, James. I'm going to have to hunt this one down.


Anonymous said...

It is definitely worth reading, George.

Jeff M.

Cap'n Bob said...

I love insider info like this.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

I was happy to find this yesterday at a used bookstore here along with Book 10 - A GALLOWS WAITING. Looking forward to reading them both.

James Reasoner said...

A GALLOWS WAITING was written by another friend of mine, the late Geo. W. Proctor, who also wrote #7 END OF THE LINE. Both good books.