Friday, April 21, 2017

Red Runs the River by Lewis Patten

John Sessions peered over the edge of his shallow rifle pit to look at the Cheyennes massing. They had the tiny band of army scouts surrounded, and were readying for the kill.  
The chances of breaking out of this bind were a hundred to one. And if those odds weren't bloody enough, even as Sessions waited for the Indian's head-on charge, he knew that three traitors' guns were trained dead on his back. 
To live or die wasn't the question. Sessions' only choice was which way to shoot when the showdown came.... 

Lewis Patten was a prolific western writer. His work was consistently of a higher quality, especially given his prolific nature. He served in the Navy, graduated from the University of Denver, and was a cattle rancher before turning to writing. His first published story, "Too Good With a Gun", appeared in Zane Grey's Western Magazine in 1950. His first novel, Massacre at White River, was published in 1952. Before his death in 1982 of lung cancer he had published over 100 novels in just about every traditional western sub-genre.

Like a lot of the peak western era writers, and other pulp-era writer, Patten had, and believed in, a strong work ethic, and believed that hard work trumps talent every time.

"I have always maintained that there are thousands of potential writers with more talent than I have. What they don't have is guts: the will to sit down at the typewriter and write, whether the copy that comes out is worth a damn or not." -- Lewis Patten

Patten's best known work is likely The Death of a Gunfighter which was made into a movie in 1969 starring Richard Widmark (behind the scenes battles resulted in the creation of Alan Smithee). Other movies made from his work include Red Sundown (1956), Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971).

His work generally is psychologically dark and more complex, aligning with the growth of the genre at the time, and deals with the darker side of humanity with open eyes in a direct, matter-of-fact style.

Red Runs the River is, in part, inspired by the Battle of Beecher Island, or at least uses the framework of that battle for the purposes of the story.

Sessions is a rancher who comes home to find that his family has been murdered, raped, and scalped. He also discovers that a stash of gold that he had hidden in the cellar is gone. The death of his family was made to look like an Indian attack but five pages in he realizes that it wasn't Indians that killed his family. The details just aren't right.

He tracks the three riders to a town where the Cavalry is signing up men to go fight the Indians. A little bit of leg work tells him that the three men signed up, so he does also. The first engagement with the Indians doesn't go well and the unit of 50 men are trapped on a small island, surrounded. This is the setting for Sessions' to find the men that killed his family, if he can survive.

The engine of the narrative is powered by conflict happening on multiple levels. Part of it is interior, Sessions is battling his grief and his desire for revenge and, by extension, what will happen after the act of revenge is complete. Externally, Sessions in on a very personal mission where he tracks the three men responsible for killing his family to a Cavalry unit going after a group of Indians. He ties the fate of his mission to the larger mission, and these two missions won't always be compatible. The tension further escalates when the Cavalry unit gets into an impossibly tight situation. Survival and revenge play out against each other, as do taking orders and working within the established military system while trying to conduct non-military business.  The level of tension brings about a narrative uncertainty, just not knowing how things are going to play out, that compulsively pulls the reader to the end.  

In a genre filled with lean and mean books Red Runs the River is leaner and meaner than most. At one point, about 60 pages in, I marveled at just how much story had taken place in that span. Regardless of genre, a truly lean and mean narrative is something to behold and can make a reader question his lengthier reading choices (or at least those that aim is undercut by padding). Patten keeps his foot on the gas to get Sessions to the men who killed his family and then trapped on the island. Then he eases off the pedal some to allow Sessions time for his investigation proper to unfold, the reader can use the breather.

Patten is one of my favorite western writers and his work is mostly out of print. Writing under his own name and other pseudonyms, he worked with 26 publishers (Double Day & Co. being the longest relationship), he was published in both hardcover and paperback, his work was constantly being reissued. You can't overstate how huge the western market was at one time, so there were a lot of books being published.  He was an unfortunate casualty of the collapse of the western market.

For years, in mystery/crime fiction a kind of Auteur Theory has been applied to the pulp era. That from the pulp publishing machine truly great artists can rise above the mass of production with an individual voice. Decades later we reappraise and hold above others certain authors like Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford. You can do the same with the western writers, the mass of western books published in that genre's heyday are mostly forgotten and waiting to be re-discovered. For those readers willing to do some sifting and panning there is gold to be found.

Formulary is a word that gets used a lot in discussion of westerns. And it fits. A lot of the books are a kind of disposable fiction. Which isn't to say unlikable, because they are enjoyable and do have their charms. The best of those were those that were doing something different, deeper, and challenging, and that retained a high level of consistency even though they may have been prolific. Lewis Patten fits that bill.

Highly recommended

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