Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Classic Westerns: Taps at Little Big Horn - John Benteen (Ben Haas)

Although Ben Haas wrote a lot of books under a lot of different names (including some well-regarded mainstream novels under his real name), he’s probably best remembered these days as the author of two Western series from the Seventies, Fargo and Sundance, both of which he wrote under the pseudonym John Benteen. I’ve been a fan of his work for many years and have read most of the Fargo novels, but for some reason I read only a few books in the Sundance series. I intend to remedy that, starting with the fifth entry, TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN. (I read the first four years ago, plus another book or two from later in the series.)

Jim Sundance is the son of a Cheyenne mother and a British remittance man father. He’s a professional fighting man and is equally at home in either world, Indian or white . . . although if he had to choose, he’d probably stick with the Cheyenne. He’s a staunch defender of the Indians and uses the money he makes as a mercenary to fund efforts to combat the schemes of the Indian Ring, a notorious cartel of ruthless businessmen and corrupt politicians. This much is based on history, and actual events crop up in the novels from time to time.

TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN, as you’d expect, is a prime example of that. In an earlier book, Sundance met and fell in love with Barbara Colfax, the beautiful daughter of the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Barbara now lives with the Cheyenne and has adopted the name Two Roads Woman. But her father still wants her to come home, and he persuades Sundance to bring her to a meeting with him. The bait he dangles is a promise to use his influence to keep the army from trying to move the Cheyenne and the Sioux out of their hunting grounds in Montana.

Well, I think any reader of Westerns and men’s adventure fiction will know that things don’t work out as Sundance hoped. He winds up putting the white part of his heritage aside and throwing in with the Cheyenne as Colonel George Armstrong Custer leads the Seventh Cavalry on its fateful mission to force them out of their hunting grounds.

One of the problems with a book like this that’s so tied in with actual history is that the reader already knows a lot of what’s going to happen. The challenge to the novelist is to blend the fictional characters and events in with the real ones skillfully enough to create an interesting story that holds the attention. Ben Haas is more than up to this challenge. Sundance is a strong, likable protagonist, and even though we know things aren’t really going to work out for him in this book, we root for him anyway. And as always, Haas provides plenty of great, gritty action scenes.

Personally, I wouldn’t put TAPS AT LITTLE BIG HORN in the top rank of Ben Haas’s books, because while it’s as well-written as always and compelling enough that it kept me up later than usual reading, I’m just not as fond of books set during the Indian Wars, especially ones that focus on actual battles. It’s a good solid novel and I’m glad I read it, but I’m looking forward to some of Sundance’s more fictional adventures. Which I plan to be reading soon.

That's my copy in the scan above, by the way, complete with tape on the cover and price sticker from the Used Book Warehouse in Rockport, Texas.


David Cranmer said...

I have an exact vibe reading fictional characters set against historical happenings. Yes, the author's skill makes all the difference.

ZenRuss said...

I just started reading this series with "The Bronco Trail #10". I much prefer to read gunfighter old west fiction, but I liked this well enough to want to read some more. I agree, the author does make all the difference. Thanks to Justin Marriott and the Hot Lead all review special fanzine for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was one of the best Sundance novels, with Haas somehow managing to blend the rugged action of a hero-pulp novel with an elegiac meditation on the end of the American Indian way of life.
The strange but weirdly effective combination makes it unique in my experience.

While episodic, inconsistent, and certainly not critical to a reader’s enjoyment, an internal chronology can be discerned in Haas work on this series, especially in the first few titles, which build to a tragic climax and denouement in Taps at Little Big Horn and The Ghost Dancers.

There seem to be a good deal more fans of Haas/Benteen’s Fargo than Sundance. This makes sense as there’s a lot more Sundance out there that Haas didn’t write (and some of it is dire) and Haas own work on the series is uneven. But I think the best Sundance novels are at least as good as the best Fargo novels.

John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

John, I agree with you about the best Sundance novels being as good as the best Fargo novels. I'll check my shelves for THE GHOST DANCERS, and if I don't have the paperback, I'll order the ebook edition.

Howard Andrew Jones said...

I'm a big fan of Sundance. I managed to find all of them before I found all of the Fargo, (back before any were available as e-books) and I think I like him at least as well as the more famous Fargo, even though I agree with Hocking that some are more uneven than any of the Fargo books.

I also agree with him in feeling that the very best Sundance carry more emotional weight than the best Fargo.

Probably my personal favorite is Dakota Territory. Here's an excerpt of a review I wrote for that one in Hot Lead, with details on what I like about the plot:

"There’s General George Armstrong Custer out to fight some Indians and keep the peace and maybe get a little something for himself, and then there’s a revengeful Sioux medicine man who thinks he’s got magical powers. Throw in a love interest and you have one pressure cooker of a plot that sees Sundance up against it in multiple ways almost from the very start. I was particularly impressed with Haas’ depiction of the medicine man, an antagonist that you can’t help liking a little even though he’s gone mad with his own power."

I had steered clear of all the other authors writing Sundance, but Hocking tried one of the early Peter McCurtin books and pronounced it quite strong. I read it and ended up liking it a lot myself. Unlike a lot of pastiche it seemed to be written with great love of the character and familiarity with his world, attitude, and even the style of pacing and plotting used by Haas. I'm looking forward to reading more Sundance by him.

James Reasoner said...

I haven't read any of McCurtin's Sundance novels yet, but I'm certainly going to make an effort to. I've enjoyed the Lassiters I've read by him.

Anonymous said...

The Sundance novel written by Peter McCurtin mentioned by Jones above is Manhunt.

As I read it I was pretty sure I was reading Ben Haas. Only a couple giveaways and the intrepid scholarship of Lynn Monroe convinced me it was by McCurtin.
The book is full-on Haas-pastiche in the truest sense of the word. It’s structured like a Haas novel and the prose tries to mirror his work.
It also features one of my favorite Haas trademarks— an extended battle scene where his hero is pitted against several foes and believably takes them all down.

I was beginning to doubt that any of the non-Haas Sundance novels could be any good at all, but Manhunt was excellent and seemed to show genuine respect by McCurtin for Haas.