Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Hell Strip - Lee Richards (Lee E. Wells)

Art by Lu Kimmel

The year is 1851, and Texas Ranger Dave Fleming is gripped by gold fever. He resigns from the Rangers and heads for Panama, intending to make his way to California and find his fortune in the goldfields. Unfortunately, through a series of misadventures, Dave winds up stranded in that tropical hellhole and goes to work for Marie Hooper, a beautiful redheaded American who owns the biggest saloon, gambling den, and bordello in Panama City. He also makes a bad enemy in Krim Paletz, the owner of a freight line who may well be the mastermind behind the outlaw gang terrorizing the whole country.

Then another former Ranger arrives in Panama, an old friend of Dave’s named Ran Runnels. Runnels, a deadly gunfighter and manhunter, has been recruited by representatives of the American, British, and French governments to bring law and order to Panama, no matter what it takes. He immediately gets Dave to sign on as his second-in-command, and they set out to track down the leaders of Panama’s criminal underworld.

HELL STRIP is a terrific book, a fast-moving blend of Western, historical, and hardboiled crime in an unusual setting. The actual author behind the Lee Richards pseudonym is the old pulpster and paperbacker Lee E. Wells. I read one of Wells’ Rio Kid pulp novels some years ago and thought it was okay, but I wasn’t impressed enough to seek out any more of his novels. Clearly, based on this Gold Medal paperback from 1955, that was a mistake. It could be that Wells just wasn’t all that well-suited to write a pulp series character. That’s been true with other authors I’ve encountered. But he sure spins a great yarn here.

In addition to the intrigue and gunplay and strong, likable protagonist, there’s a well-done romantic triangle, some harrowing scenes in a Panamanian prison, and a vivid rendering of the exotic setting. Wells even gives the reader a slight plot twist late in the book that’s effective even if it’s not really surprising, and the ending is very satisfying. This would have made a great 1950s movie with Clint Walker playing Dave, Audie Murphy as Runnels, Rhonda Fleming as Marie, and maybe John Dehner as the sinister Krim Paletz.

Even though HELL STRIP doesn’t break any new ground other than the Panama setting, Wells did such a good job spinning his yarn that it doesn’t matter. I had a wonderful time reading this book. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s an inexpensive e-book edition of it available on Amazon. If you’re a fan of hardboiled Westerns, I give it a very high recommendation.


Anders Nilsson said...

Great review! Just love the cover art, and the blurb: It was a city so wicked - even the devil left town

Glen Davis said...

That trip across the isthmus was no joke back in those days.