Friday, June 24, 2016

Forgotten Books: Pistol Passport - Eugene Cunningham

Years ago I came across a mention of a series of stories by Eugene Cunningham about a former Texas Ranger forced to turn outlaw when he’s framed for murder. These appeared in FRONTIER STORIES and ACTION STORIES. I thought at the time they sounded like a prime candidate for reprinting, and as it turns out, some of them were, in somewhat different form. At least I think so.

Cunningham’s novel PISTOL PASSPORT was published in 1936. It opens with a former Texas Ranger named Steve Drago being convicted of murder for what was really a fair fight with a member of the opposing clan in one of those famous Texas feuds. Drago escapes from custody and tries to make it across the border into Mexico, but he winds up being sidetracked to the Taunton Basin in West Texas where there’s a range war going on between two factions, both of which are pretty bad. All the other ranchers in the basin are caught in the middle of this violent clash, including a beautiful young blonde who’s trying to run the family ranch with the dubious help of her ne’er-do-well brother. Drago, being a former lawman and a deadly gunfighter, naturally sides with the underdogs and pulls a RED HARVEST by playing the two bunches of bad guys against each other.

This results in a fine Western novel. Cunningham wrote great action scenes that are more graphic and hardboiled than most of what appeared in the Western pulps during the Twenties and Thirties. Having been a Texas cowboy himself, his descriptions of the range and of ranch life have the unmistakable ring of authenticity. The action may be over the top, but at least it’s grounded in reality. He also has a tin ear for dialogue at times, but mostly it’s very good. His style is just offbeat enough that I used to find it a little distracting, but once you get into the flow of his writing, it really sweeps you along.

Now, as for the connection between this novel and the Gip Drago pulp stories . . . In the December 1931 of FRONTIER STORIES, Cunningham published a novella entitled “Pistol Passport”. In the next three issues, more Cunningham novellas appeared. I don’t have a scan of the cover for December '31, but the cover of the next one features Cunningham’s novella “High Stakes” and clearly calls it “Another Gip Drago Novel of the Range”, meaning that it wasn’t the first in the series. I think “Pistol Passport” was, and that the next two stories, “The Leather Slapper” and “Riding Gun” were also part of the series. Then, according to the Fictionmags Index, the Gip Drago series ends until 1935, when it resumes in the pages of ACTION STORIES.

Now, having read the novel PISTOL PASSPORT, it’s a fairly seamless narrative, but the plot is just episodic enough to make me believe that Cunninghan rewrote those first four Gip Drago novellas into this novel featuring the renamed protagonist Steve Drago. (Sort of the way Hammett did with RED HARVEST, to go back to that.) If that’s actually the case, it makes me wonder about those later Gip Drago stories, since the ending of the novel wraps things up pretty neatly and doesn’t leave much room for a sequel. But of course, being an inventive pulp writer, Cunningham could find a way. I still hope somebody will reprint those later stories. I really enjoyed PISTOL PASSPORT and give it a high recommendation for fans of the Western pulps and hardboiled, traditional Western novels.


Joel said...

This novel was also published in the July 1936 issue of Complete Western Book Magazine under the title "Killer!"

James Reasoner said...

Thanks, Joel. I didn't know that.