Friday, January 08, 2016

Forgotten Books: Honkytonk Brand - Walker A. Tompkins

"The chips were down, and Banning bought a dance-hall queen to buck the range-hog's ace..."

This short novel first appeared in the Spring 1951 issue of the pulp magazine TWO WESTERN ACTION BOOKS and was later reprinted in a large print edition, which is where I read it. An odd thing about TWO WESTERN ACTION BOOKS is that in the indicia (the tiny print at the bottom of the table of contents page) it's listed as TWO WESTERN ROMANCES. Actually, either title would be appropriate for HONKYTONK BRAND, since there's plenty of action in it, yet it's also unmistakably a Western romance.

Rancher Wes Banning, who operates a small outfit in Washington Territory, has a problem as this book opens. The local cattle baron, Greg Costaine, wants to take over the range that Wes has leased from the government. Costaine plans to push his herd through a small section of land that hasn't had a homestead claim filed on it. Wes can't claim another section himself, but his wife could...if he had a wife. Luckily, he's already engaged to a seamstress in the nearby settlement. All he has to do is talk her into a hurry-up wedding.

Naturally, complications ensue. Wes winds up with a wife, but not the one he intended. Troubles keep piling up on his head, as every time he tries to foil Costaine's plans, the ruthless cattleman has some other trick up his sleeve. And Wes's new bride has dangerous secrets of her own that may doom all his efforts to save his ranch.

As you can tell from that description, if you've read many Westerns you won't find much in HONKYTONK BRAND to surprise you, but that doesn't really matter. Like L.P. Holmes, another favorite of mine, Walker Tompkins produced stories and novels that were very traditional in their plots and characters, yet he spun those yarns with such skill that it's easy to forgive their predictability. In this case, I raced right through HONKYTONK BRAND and enjoyed every page of it for its sure-handed prose and Tompkins' mastery of pacing. For a fan of traditional Westerns, it's pure entertainment and well worth reading.


Todd Mason said...

I wonder if that was the first title for the magazine, or perhaps only on an ashcan issue/registered at the Post Office thus.

I think I've barely read Tompkins, probably if so in a Pronzini antho...will look around.

James Reasoner said...

In looking more closely at the FMI, I see that this issue was the transition from the original title, TWO WESTERN ROMANCES, to TWO WESTERN ACTION BOOKS, so really it could be listed under either title, I suppose.

Pronzini was not kind to Tompkins' work in SIX-GUN IN CHEEK. His early work, such as a number of serials/linked novelettes in WILD WEST WEEKLY, isn't very good, but I think by the late Thirties and on through the Forties and Fifties he was a much better writer, with a really good grasp of pacing and what makes an action Western work. He was a journeyman, certainly, but a dependably entertaining one.

Walker Martin said...

I agree with your opinion about Walker Tompkin's work in WILD WEST WEEKLY. But it really wasn't his fault since he was encouraged to write down to the level of the teen age boy market. His adult fiction came later and was more readable.

James Reasoner said...

I feel a real kinship with Tompkins because he spent a lot of his career writing under pseudonyms and house names and ghosting for other authors. I had his address while he was still alive but never got around to writing to him and letting him know how much I enjoyed his work. My failure to do that is one of the things I regret.

Mathew Paust said...

Gotta love the compression of "The chips were down, and Banning bought a dance-hall queen to buck the range-hog's ace..." I can hear those words coming out of one side of Sam Elliott's mouth.

Todd Mason said...

Well, given that the publisher of the TWO COMPLETE magazines (and of PLANET STORIES and JUNGLE STORIES, the two that Jerome Bixby edited for a while) was in one corporate face the Love Romances Publishing Co., that first title only makes sense...and SIXGUN IN CHEEK might well be why I recall Tompkins as associated with BP.

You know, I kinda sorta just took a roundabout opportunity to do the kind of thing you describe...I liked the radio reporter Red Collins's stories in F&SF back when, and he once was a customer of a bookstore I was working in, about the time the last of them was published, and I rung his transaction up, but I didn't take the opportunity to let him know that at that time. His son posted a piece on the CBS site about the NASA coverage by CBS News over the years, including that of his father, like Scott Pelley the current CBS EVENING NEWS anchor a space-exploration enthusiast, and I've left a comment on the post mentioning the elder Collins's work. Sideline work, when not doing radio reporting or rightwing ranting.