Friday, April 14, 2017

FFS: Small-Town Law Week: Bill Pronzini: "The Hanging Man"; Howard Rigsby: "Dead Man's Story"; James Shaffer, "The Long Arm of the Law"

Howard Rigsby: "Dead Man’s Story", (ss) Argosy Aug 27 1938, as “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead”; The Mysterious Traveler Magazine Nov 1951

James Shaffer: "The Long Arm of the Law" [probably] New Western Magazine [v12 #1, August 1946]; Pocket Reader Series [#124, Western Stories, 1950] UK

Bill Pronzini: "The Hanging Man", (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Aug 12 1981

Patti Abbott wanted a special emphasis this week on small-town sheriffs and police, which I suspect is going to lean heavily toward Bill Crider fiction, and well it might. I might just add a fourth story to this post of just that sort myself, but until that time, I took a bit of a different tack, and picked out three stories, one I'd loved when I first read it forty years ago, one which I'd not yet read by one of my favorite crime and western fiction writers, and one which was as new to me as its author. And none is precisely about either a sheriff or a police officer, though all of them involve one degree or another of men of those professions; no women in the jobs, since one is a contemporary story (for the time it was written and published) set in Florida in the 1930s, one is a California historical set in the time of the fading of the "traditional" west, in the first decade of the 1900s, and one is apparently set in what was still Wyoming Territory, sometime I'd guess in the 1880s. 

"Dead Man's Story" (apparently Rigsby's preferred title) is an utterly engaging dialect story, told from the point of view of Panama City, Florida-area Game Warden Joe Root, a native of the area and a tough man with a strong sense of duty, who knows and loves his job. In fact, his sense of duty is so strong that when he finds a wealthy tourist from Up North poaching deer out of season, neither bribery nor being shot multiple times will deter him from getting his man, eventually with an assist from another Warden and the County Sheriff of both their acquaintance. It's a borderline horror story that Manly Wade Wellman could've written about as well, but probably not much better, either. Robert Arthur reprinted it in his The Mysterious Traveler Magazine (a literary spin-off from his Mutual Radio anthology series) and later in Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Month of Mystery (Random House, 1969), which has the slightly macabre distinction in relation to the story of being the last AHP: volume Arthur would edit before his death. I first read it in '76 or '77 in my new copy of the Dell second edition, published in '76 as AHP: Dates with seems a bit odd to be able to page through this paperback, in reasonably good shape, that has traveled with me for forty years. 

James Shaffer was a very prolific writer of western fiction in the 1940s, with a thick population of stories cited in the FictionMags Index from 1942-52, whose work I've not read before, as far as I know (he shouldn't be confused with the author of Shane, Jack Schaeffer).  I know nothing more about him, but he wrote at least this rather clever story, involving one Johnny Mason (not the reason I selected this one, but mildly amusing to me), a somewhat reluctant 27yo retiree from being a range detective for the quasi-private Western Cattlemen's Protective Association's Cheyenne office; he's also an extremely skilled and/or fortunate gambler, who's won enough recently at poker to allow him to put in his notice, but his old boss manages to rope him into taking a new assignment, by letting him know that the game's afoot out along one of the rail lines, where a rancher has died...possibly by accident, at least apparently so...and yet the beneficiary of his sizable insurance policy has refused to accept the check, and two letters had been sent
to the Association's office, apparently written by the decedent: one on the day before his death, asking for assistance with criminal activity against him, and one reversing that request...sent the day after his death. Mason comes to town and investigates, brushing up against the kind of corruption you might expect in a railroad cattle town in the 1880s, with a fixed trial among other adventures awaiting several of the characters, including Mason; Elmore Leonard could've written this one better, and did in various ways (notably in the source story for the television series Justified), but Shaffer's work here is fine and almost completely fair-play detection (he withholds one crucial fact till he's ready to have Mason lay it out). There's a very good chance this one first appeared in the Popular Publications/ Fictioneers pulp New Western for August 1946, but the FMI folks haven't been able to confirm that; the story is in the index by name because of its reprint  in a British magazine that ran various sorts of theme issues, and apparently was no more explicit in citing its source than the book I've read this in, Damon Knight's Westerns of the '40s: Classics from the Great Pulps, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1977, an anthology comprised of stories Knight remembered fondly from his years of working on Fictioneers pulps as one of the staff editors. 

Bill Pronzini's story is typically understated, and deals (as will surprise none of his readers) with a mysterious murder in a small Northern California town, Tule River, at the turn of the 20th century when the community hasn't yet gained its first automobile. For a police force Tule River has two volunteer sheriff's deputies in Carl Miller and Ed Bozeman, who theoretically work under the anti-professional riding sheriff, a fellow who drops in occasionally from the county seat to have the era-appropriate version of too many donuts at the local eatery. A drifter, who it turns out had been soliciting work around town, is found hanged early one morning. Carl and Ed cautiously put matters together, and find things are a bit more disturbing than they feared. Had Bill Pronzini started his career a decade or so earlier, the Gunsmoke producers, at least for the radio series if not for the tv version as well, would've been wise to have him on staff.  I read this one in the unabridged 1989 Reader's Digest Association reprint of The Arbor House Treasury of Great Western Stories (1982), edited by Pronzini and Martin Harry Greenberg, who was known to insist that his writer co-editors include one of their own works. Unlike most instant remainders, which (as a remainder, rather than though possibly from a library sale) I suspect is how I acquired this one, the RD folks published theirs on acid-free paper...I'm noting how my copy of a more typical instant remainder, published in its only edition, I believe, by Random House subsidiary Gramercy in 1995, John Tuska's fat best-of-the-magazine anthology Star Western, is showing clear signs of not being able to last forty years as anything but a pile of acidic dust.  Ah, the life of to look at everyone else's choices for this week. 


George said...

Todd, your prediction that several commentators would choose Bill Crider mysteries was right on the money! However, your choices are very intriguing. I'm familiar with the Pronzini and the Rigsby, but I'll have to track down the Shaeffer.

Todd Mason said...

You'll enjoy it. You'll definitely enjoy the less law-officer-laden stories in the Knight anthology, I suspect. Sorry to readers for my not atypical tardiness in putting together this post, which grows as I write it this morning.

Mathew Paust said...

The Pronzini story intrigues. I hadn't thought of him writing westerns.

Todd Mason said...

A good chunk of his career, Matt...he's written some fantasy and sf, but very little in comparison to the amount of his western fiction...while crime fiction still accounts for most of his work, of course.