Friday, May 06, 2016

Forgotten Books: Nightrider Deputy - Ralph R. Perry

Sometimes a book takes you completely by surprise. That’s the case with NIGHTRIDER DEPUTY. Ralph R. Perry was a fairly successful pulp author for three decades, from the mid-Twenties to the mid-Fifties, turning out scores of Western, mystery, aviation, and sea stories. As far as I know, NIGHTRIDER DEPUTY is his only novel. It was published in 1954 as half of Ace Double D-72 along with Norman A. Fox’s THE DEVIL’S SADDLE and has never been reprinted. If I’ve ever read any of Perry’s pulp stories, they didn’t impress me enough for me to remember them, so when I started this book I was hoping for nothing more than a competently written Western.

Turns out it’s a lot more than that.

Oh, the plot is traditional enough. Young Mat Karney returns to the Toltec Valley, where he’s inherited his father’s ranch. He finds that homesteaders are moving in, along with small ranchers who threaten the big spreads belonging to Mat and his chief competitor, Big Tom Parks. There’s some rustling going on, too, and Mat suspects Parks may be behind it. What really sets everything in motion, though, is when the train Mat is taking back to the valley is stopped and robbed, and a homesteader on the train is killed during the holdup.

“The man was already dead, yet the girl pressed the compress on the wound as though by sheer will she could push life back into the body.”

I read that and thought, “That’s a pretty good line.” Not Hemingway, maybe, but not bad. It’s on the third page of the book, and as I continued reading I enjoyed Perry’s distinctive, hardboiled style. Then the plot twists kicked in. Yeah, this is a range war book, but instead of the usual two factions, there are half a dozen, and the alliances between them are constantly shifting until you can’t be sure who’s really on whose side. Several overlapping romantic triangles complicate things even more, and this is one case where I wasn’t sure which girl the hero was going to wind up with, or even which one he should wind up with. Characters you don’t expect to die don’t make it to the end of the book. There are some really suspenseful scenes and some epic shootouts, climaxing with a very satisfying battle.

The title NIGHTRIDER DEPUTY doesn’t really fit the book, which makes me suspect some editor slapped it on the manuscript. The generic title and the rather bland cover (the scan is from the copy I read, as usual, beat up though it may be) lead the reader to expect a very run-of-the-mill Western. Instead, while it doesn’t quite rise to classic level, NIGHTRIDER DEPUTY is a really fine Western novel. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year, and I’ll definitely be looking to read more of Ralph R. Perry’s work.

(Note: Since this is Perry's only novel that I know of, I suppose technically it's his first novel, too, which fits today's Forgotten Books theme, but I wasn't thinking of that when I wrote and scheduled this post.)


Walker Martin said...

Ralph Perry was one of the better authors in ARGOSY. In the 1930's he had several sea stories in his series starring Bellow Bill Williams. I didn't realize he was also into westerns.

Scott Parker said...

It's great when you find an author who delivers more than you expect. I'm guessing you found it in a used bookstore? How long did you have it before you got around to reading it?

James Reasoner said...

This copy came in a bunch of pulps and vintage paperbacks I got from my buddy Scott Cupp. I think maybe I have another copy somewhere I got from Half Price Books or Recycled Books, but I'm not sure about that. I've had this copy about a year and a half.

I have some other Western stories by Perry lined up to read and will get to them sooner or later.