A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who's that stranger?

The literary gods bestowed a gift upon me some weeks back when an advance copy of a new novel by an author I regularly enjoy found its way onto my doorstep.  Well, it’s actually a book by two authors I enjoy, Max Allan Collins and the late Mickey Spillane, so it was kind of a double treat.  But, hmmm, the book was a western- cowboys and gun fightin' and cattle and all that, so would I like it as much as the several Mike Hammer novels these guys have shared a credit on in recent years?

The short answer is, sure, The Legend of Caleb York, Collins’ novelized adaptation of an unproduced screenplay that Spillane wrote for his buddy John Wayne back in the 50’s, is good fun.  A stranger wanders into town just as a turf war is heating up between gentle, blind ranch owner George Cullen and corrupt sheriff Harry Gauge, whose goal it is to swallow up every ranch in the region.  Ranch owner Cullen has a pretty and feisty daughter named Willa, who is fiercely protective of her father, and of course the sheriff and his equally shady deputy have a bit of a thing for the girl, too, even though they don’t in any way take her seriously as a threat.  Oh, the stranger who meanders into town takes a shine to Willa, too, but that takes a back seat to his making a general nuisance of himself with the sheriff, who has faced no real threat to his plans before the stranger’s arrival.

The main plot centers on Sheriff Gauge’s many indirect and direct attempts (they become more direct and deadly and the book progresses) to take over the Cullen ranch, and the quick responses of the visiting stranger to thwart those efforts and help the Cullens.  But who is the stranger?  Is he the killer for hire that George Cullen requested via telegraph (recklessly, in the view of his daughter Willa) to take care of his problem with the sheriff? Someone else who got wind of the situation? Or is he indeed just a stranger- a deadly one, as it soon becomes clear- who wandered into town just when someone like him was needed to balance the scales?  The stranger is stingy with answers on that score.

The book has all the familiar, entertaining elements of a western film of the 50’s (the alliances of decent folk against a shared threat, the backroom plotting by good guys and villains alike, the colorful supporting characters, the suspense of impending shootouts, the catharsis of same, etc.), but with one added element, and one that is unmistakably Spillane’s: bloody, gut-spilling violence.  Throughout what is otherwise a standard, even conservative example of the genre, heads explode, intestines spill out of abdomens, knives do all kinds of graphic damage to throats and bellies, and beatings- many beatings- are inflicted on the human form.

I didn’t mind those visceral elements, and most pulp-thriller enthusiasts probably won't, either. Heck, I’m all for bracing, even wince-inducing moments, if they ratchet up the drama and danger in a story.  But some readers may find those parts to be a bit much.  For me, though, the combination of a solid, enjoyable story with shocking, graphic violence was like indulging in a favorite, comfortably familiar cocktail, in my case a vodka martini, only one where the bartender substituted a Jalapeno pepper in place of the olives.  I think such a drink would be kind of terrific, and this story is, too.

The Legend of Caleb York is the latest collaboration between the late Mickey Spillane and his literary executor and posthumous collaborator, Max Allan Collins, a great and successful writer in his own right. In addition to frequently producing his own thrillers (this year's violent, sexy, and darkly funny Quarry's Choice was pretty great), Collins spends a lot of his time these days finishing up the many uncompleted works Spillane left behind upon his death in 2006.  Usually these collaborations are just that: collaborative efforts consisting of an unfinished manuscript or story fragment by Spillane- most about P.I. Mike Hammer-  that Collins enhances and completes.  This one is more purely Spillane, I suspect, as there was a complete movie screenplay by Mickey Spillane to work from when Max Allan Collins sat down at his desk to begin the adaptation process.

Having said that,  I’m still pretty sure that much of the final dialogue and story elements in the book are Collins’ own, as the adaptation process likely required story additions and well, adaptation, to keep things clear and moving along, and to convert the clipped descriptions of a screenplay into the richness of a book.  After all, novels need and encourage the kind of elaboration that screenplays don’t.  As usual, though, it's all seamless, the Spillane/Collins narrative voice once again strong, clear, and decisive.

In the end, The Legend of Caleb York should please western and thriller enthusiasts, followers of Collins and Spillane, and film fans alike. To that last point, Collins helpfully relates in his entertaining introduction the handful of actors in addition to John Wayne who might have played the lead role if the film had been produced, suggesting to his readers that, if they like, they could picture one of those actors in their imaginations as they turn the pages.  

Incidentally, if The Legend of Caleb York takes off, there are certainly possibilities for a follow-up.  So, to channel for a moment the book’s lovable drunk, Tulley, who often sleeps under the wooden planks in front of the sheriff’s office, “Get thinkin’, friend Collins, and spin me another tall tale with shootin’ and drinkin’ and rustlin’! And did I say drinkin’?”

"The Legend of Caleb York" will be available in print and Kindle editions on April 28.

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