Friday, November 21, 2014

Forgotten Books: In the Hills of Monterey - Max Brand (Frederick Faust)

Originally appearing as a serial in Western Story in October and November of 1924 under the pseudonym John Frederick, this is more of a historical novel than a traditional Western. It seems to be Faust's attempt to cash in on the popularity of Johnston McCulley's character Zorro, who had been appearing in the pulps for several years previously. Set in Spanish California in 1817, the novel features several Zorro-like elements: a masked hero who has a secret identity; a villainous provincial governor; bumbling soldiers; a beautiful heroine; a magnificent horse, etc. Faust throws in some unexpected twists, though, and puts some unusual spins on the familiar in order to make this an interesting, entertaining novel.

Don Francisco Valdez is a young Spanish nobleman who has been brought to California to marry the beautiful Ortiza Tarabel, the daughter of a wealthy, powerful landholder. On the ship carrying Valdez to California is also Colonel Louis Mortier, a French soldier on a mysterious mission of his own. Valdez has a slave with him, a redheaded Englishman called El Rojo who was formerly a prisoner of Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean. (Getting complicated enough for you already? There's more.) Valdez has his horse with him, the great stallion Sanduval. After a fencing exhibition on shipboard where it becomes obvious that the slave El Rojo is really a master swordsman, Sanduval leaps overboard as the ship approaches the coast. El Rojo goes after the horse, but once they reach the shore, instead of bringing Sanduval back, El Rojo rides off into the hills on him, escaping from a life as Valdez's slave.

El Rojo becomes a hunted outlaw and gathers some allies, a band of ninja-like Navajo Indians who have a grudge of their own against the brutal governer, Jose Pyndero. Plenty of intrigue, romance, swordfights, and hair's-breadth escapes follow, along with the introduction of a mysterious English nobleman, Lord Wyncham, who shows up in Monterey and stirs the pot even more. It's all a bit silly and over the top for modern readers, but if you can put yourself in the place of a Twenties pulp reader and not let the obvious plot devices bother you, the novel is great fun as well.

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