Western novels by Frank Gruber
Better than pulp
Many Western and detective novels and short stories earned the derogative term pulp fiction. Pulp has rather a bad name. Webster’s defines it as “sensational or tabloid writing”. Actually, many of the works dismissed by many as pulp were perfectly adequately written; it was their very popularity that gave them a bad rep, and the fact that they were often printed on low-quality paper for a mass market.
Frank Gruber (1904 – 1969) wrote 125 short stories between 1933 and 1957, 35 novels between 1940 and 1969, and also original screenplays. In addition, many movies were made from his stories. He was, too, a prime mover in the creation of three popular Western TV shows, Shotgun Slade, The Texan and Tales of Wells Fargo. The Westerns he wrote are literate (Gruber either had a perfectly competent control of English or a good editor, or both) and if they do occasionally verge on the edge of sensationalism stylistically, they don’t quite tip over.
Frank was handy with a typewriter
Unlike the short stories, where Westerns predominate, most of his novels were in fact detective yarns; only three were Westerns. Quantrell’s Raiders (which had first been a magazine serial) was the first, in 1953. This was followed later the same year (Gruber said he could write a novel in two weeks) by Rebel Road, also published under the title Outlaw, a post-Civil War story about a man who rode with Quantrell, and The Highway Man (1956). The first two are available in the Ace Double paperback format (two novels for 35 cents!)
It was Gruber who famously said that there were only seven Western plots:
1. Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories fall into this category.
2. Ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners.
3. Empire story. The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot.
4. Revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story.
5. Cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around "taming" the wilderness for white settlers.
6. Outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action.
7. Marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot.
He may have had a point. Certainly the vast majority of Westerns one can think of fall into one of these categories.
My own taxonomy, for what it is worth, is similar but may be summarized thus:
1. The Manifest Destiny plot, concerning nation-building enterprises such as wagon trains, railroad construction and settlement of the virgin land. These stories tend to concentrate on the daring adventures of the settlers and builders rather than on the profit accruing to the companies concerned, and they often introduce a figure such as Abraham Lincoln to give grandeur and scope to the undertaking. Classic examples include The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), Wells Fargo (1937), Western Union (1941), and so on.
2. The Plucky Homesteader vs. Ruthless Rancher plot, often featuring a rich cattleman who fought Indians and carved out a mini-Empire in the West, only to now have incoming farmers encroaching on his open range. I sometimes call this the ‘wants the whole valley plot’. Cattle-drive movies also come into this category. The hero will align himself with the small independent fellows against the dominant overlord and his henchmen, usually hired guns. One thinks of Straight Shooting (1917), Red River (1948), Shane (1953), The Violent Men (1955), Heaven’s Gate (1980), and many more.
3. The Revenge/Pursuit Drama, in which our hero chases down and often kills in the last reel someone who has murdered one or more of his loved ones and maybe burned his ranch. The hunter will usually be a loner (as in fact cowboy heroes often are) though he may recruit some help along the way. Typical of this plot were Coroner Creek (1948), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott oaters of the late 50s, and of course The Searchers (1956),
4. The Clean-up-the-town Story, in which an intrepid lawman, usually, though sometimes a wandering gunfighter, will combat a town boss, often a crooked saloon owner in an Eastern suit, and by defeating him and his thugs bring or restore law ‘n’ order to the settlement. Destry Rides Again (1939), Dodge City (1939), Warlock (1959), or any of the countless Wyatt Earp tales fall into this category.
5. The Cavalry Western, in which soldiers will fight Indians of various tribes, most commonly Apaches, and often there will be a savvy Westerner, the ‘man who knows Indians’, a junior officer or a scout, who has to deal with a martinet superior officer from back East who intends to do it all by the book. There will often be a statesmanlike Indian chief dealing with a firebrand younger man all for the warpath, and on the white side an intelligent fellow who understands the Indian plight but has to deal with Indian-hating townsmen. Naturally John Ford’s cavalry Westerns come first to mind, with canny Western captain John Wayne and rigid Eastern colonel Henry Fonda, for example, but also Custer stories, pictures such as Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Geronimo tales, and so on.
6. The Outlaw Tale. Often the renegade will be basically a goody, a Jesse James or Billy the Kid figure, who is only acting outside the law because he was constrained to do so by some over-mighty power (often the railroads) or force of circumstance and who will be supported by the local population. He is the Western Robin Hood. He will, however, often perish in the last reel because Hollywood mores were such that however understandable the criminal actions were, the perpetrators cannot be seen to prosper. Any of the Jesse James or Billy the Kid films figure here but also tales of the Daltons, the Reno brothers, Belle Starr, or fictional outlaws also.
Of course many Westerns combined two or more of these plots.
William Clarke Quantrill (1837 – 1865), about whom we have recently been talking on this blog, was of course one of the most famous of the Confederate guerrilla leaders in the Civil War. His name was often spelt and pronounced Quantrell at the time, and indeed since. For example, Frank and Jesse James’ mother Zerelda Samuel had a later daughter whom she christened Fanny Quantrell, “just to have a Quantrell in the family.” Captain Harrison Trow, “One who followed Quantrell through his whole course”, wrote Charles W. Quantrell, A True Report of his Guerrilla Warfare on the Missouri and Kansas Border During the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Quantrell has always been a hero or villain, according to the different accounts of his exploits and the sympathies of writers and readers, a champion of the Great Cause or a war criminal. Whatever else he was or was not, though, he was certainly an adept leader of irregular cavalry. And no one, with the possible exception of his confrère Bloody Bill Anderson, has acquired such a reputation.
Because of this he has appeared more than other such combatants on the screen, big and small, played by John Ales, Bruce Bennett, Ray Corrigan, Ted de Corsia, Broderick Crawford, Brian Donlevy (twice), Leo Gordon, Fred Graham, James Griffith, Reed Hadley, Harry Hall, John Ireland, Emile Meyer, James Millican, Otto Lederer, Walter Pidgeon and Forrest Tucker, that I know of, and very possibly others too. And he has figured in Western writing too, recently, for example, in Wildwood Boys, James Carlos Blake’s novel about Anderson. In Gruber’s account Quantrill (let’s call him that) is an inspired military leader who, however, disgusts the hero, who rides with him, with his methods. This was also a trope of many Western movies, such as Kansas Raiders, as we discussed the other day, when Audie Murphy’s Jesse James is so disgusted with the guerrillas’ methods that he kills Bloody Bill Anderson in Lawrence.
This hero of Quantrell’s Raiders is young Doniphan Fletcher, whom we meet in Chapter 1 observing the First Battle of Bull Run in July ’61. He is a graduate of West Point (we later learn the star cadet) whose papers have, however, not yet come through, due to some bureaucratic snarl-up, so he is constrained to watch the conflict from a bluff above.
Doniphan is from a well-to-do Missouri family and, as often in that state, loyalties are divided: Donny’s brother Steve has enlisted in the CSA. But Donny is true-blue and has no time for Rebs, even family ones.
Two novels for 35 cents: that's what I call a bargain...
However, it does not go well for this son of the Union. Back in Missouri things go awry. The Fletcher place is beset by Redlegs, his parents are cruelly abused, self-defense comes into play but the local Union authorities suspect the Fletchers of disloyalty (because of Steve) and Donny finds himself in jail on a charge of murder. He escapes but with the hunt up all over he is forced into the other camp and constrained to become a bushwhacker. This all sounds a bit like the excuse often given for Jesse James in dime novels and movies, and indeed Kansas Raiders, only a couple of years before this book, had given exactly this pretext: his pappy hanged, ma maimed and farm burned, Jesse joins Quantrill. Complete nonsense, of course, but it aims to justify joining up with less than salubrious types.
So we get our hero fighting the war on the Confederate side. His true sympathies do not lie with killing Union men, and indeed he will play a curious double game in the conflict.
There’s love interest, naturally. You couldn’t have a novel of this kind or a movie without a fair lady to be wooed and won. And such is Donny’s case.
But whether he wins her hand, or indeed even survives to try, I shall not here reveal, for of spoilers shall there be none.
Some liberties are taken with history. A slightly alternative reading is given for the death of Bloody Bill Anderson, for example (though not as gross a liberty as Audie’s), and indeed for the demise of Quantrill himself, in Kentucky in July 1865. But that’s OK. We don’t read pulp novels or watch Western movies for hard fact; they aren’t documentaries. If you just want entertainment, and this book would have made a good Western movie, then give it a try.
The sequel Rebel Road is a very Jesse James-type story because it tells of a young Civil War guerrilla from Missouri, Jim Chapman, who rode with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, and who then turns to holding up banks and trains after the war and is pursued by a Chicago detective agency. Chapman earns a reputation nationwide for his criminal exploits. His biggest and bloodiest is a failure, robbing the bank at ‘Northport’, during which most of his gang are killed.
The story starts soon after the end of the war and goes on until the mid-1870s. Avoiding pursuit, Chapman fetches up in Deadwood, where he runs into both Wild Bill Hickok and the roguish outlaw Sam Bass. So real characters populate the pages.
However, the Chicago ‘tec is not Pinkerton but ‘Allan Vickers’. Some Western movies also changed the name like this, perhaps because the real Pinkerton agency was still going – and indeed I believe it still is, as a subsidiary of Securitas – and maybe there was a risk of copyright infringement or other legal awkwardness. Still, Vickers is Pinkerton, no doubt about that.
Of course Chapman has a lady love, Evelyn, a rather posh dame back in Missouri, who is scandalized at his nefarious deeds and remains estranged from him for most of the book. As to whether Evelyn and Jim shall ever be reunited, maybe going off to safer climes for a life of nuptial bliss, or whether the Pinks will finally locate the robber and perhaps gun him down in some shoot-out, I shall not here reveal, for, once again, of spoilers there shall be none.
But I will say that if you embark on this story you will have a few hours of fun.
The books are, as I say, written in a literate style, and though they do occasionally verge on the sensational or lurid dime-novel in approach, most of the prose passes muster adequately as ‘proper’ fiction.