Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Comanche Trail - Carlton Stowers

I've known Carlton Stowers for many years. He's a journalist, an award-winning, bestselling author of true crime books, a collaborator on a number of celebrity autobiographies, and in recent years has written several critically acclaimed volumes of historical non-fiction about small-town Texas, often sports-related. He's also a great yarn-spinner in person, and I've told him many times that he ought to be writing novels. A while back he contributed a chapter to NOAH'S RIDE, the round-robin Western novel published by TCU Press, which further convinced me he ought to try his hand at fiction.

Now, Stowers has written his first full-length novel, the recently released COMANCHE TRAIL, published by Signet as part of the Ralph Compton series. Given his background in true crime and non-fiction, it makes sense that Stowers would use the real-life case of the Bloody Benders as the jumping-off point for his story. The Bender family operated a small tavern and inn in Kansas, but their real business was robbing and murdering unwary travelers. They're sometimes referred to as America's first serial killers. They weren't—I think that dubious honor goes to the Harpe brothers—but that doesn't really matter here.

A shiftless young man named Thad Taylor, who spends a lot of his time drinking and getting thrown in jail, winds up connected by tragedy to the Benders. When the family's gruesome crimes are discovered, they go on the run. History doesn't record what happened to them, but Stowers offers the reader one possible scenario, as Thad Taylor sets out after them on a vengeance quest that will take him from Kansas through Indian Territory and deep into Texas. Along the way he makes a friend—a great character named Tater Barclay—fights Indians, outlaws, and hired killers, and finds romance. It's a great example of a personal story that becomes epic in scope.

Stowers' terse, hardboiled prose fits very well with a story that's as grim and gritty as they come, and his plot takes some unexpected twists along the way. There are also some welcome moments of humor here and there, and Thad and Tater are about as likable a pair of heroes as you're ever likely to find. COMANCHE TRAIL is top-notch Western entertainment, and I hope we can look forward to more Carlton Stowers novels in the future.

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

Glad to hear that Carton's in the novel-writing business now. Gotta get this one.