Book Review: Black Hat Jack

Book Review: Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

Nat Love is better known to some as “Deadwood Dick” as he did some fancy shooting in Deadwood, and “Deadwood Nat” just sounds wrong.  Nat was a ex-slave, a gunslinger, a soldier, a cowboy and all-round troublemaker.  You may have seen those “dime novels” with his nickname on the cover; them Eastern writers cleaned up his language considerable, his behavior some, and worst of all bleached his skin.

Black Hat Jack

But this here story is told in Nat Love’s own words, all about how he and mountain man Black Hat Jack decided to try their hand at buffalo hunting but wound up fighting in the Second Battle of Adobe Flats.  Now, this is a thing that really happened and the way Nat tells it is true…mostly.  Lyin’, well, that’s just something people do.

Joe R. Lansdale is a noted author of crime, horror and yes, western books.  He was a big name in the splatterpunk movement, and his stories often include plenty of gory violence, strong language and assorted bodily fluids.  This novella is no exception.  It’s part of Mr. Lansdale’s series about “Deadwood Dick.”  There have been relatively few stories written about African-Americans in the Old West, certainly disproportionately few in comparison to their actual numbers.

In some ways, this story is very much like the old dime novels, full of fast-paced action, flying lead and a casual relationship to historical fact.  Yes, there really was a Second Battle of Adobe Flats that Bat Masterson was present for.  And one of the defenders did pull off an amazing shot.  After that, the accounts tend to contradict each other, and Mr. Lansdale has put them together to tell the story he likes.

Where the book is unlike a dime novel is the extended coda after the battle, as Nat Love starts a relationship with a young woman he rescued during the fighting.  This plays out in a disappointing but entirely realistic manner.  It’s surprisingly melancholy for the genre.

In addition to the grisly violence mentioned above, Nat and Jack stumble across the results of torture, described in detail, and there is frequent talk of rape.  Period racism is unsurprisingly present, and Nat points out that it’s better out in the lawless West where it’s a man’s achievements that matter, than back East where you have to fit in to society.

The heavy use of obscene language made this book thick going for me; this book is not for children.

For fans of spaghetti westerns ready for a bit of diversity in the protagonists.

Note: The copy I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof and small changes may have been made in the final product, like fixing a couple of typos.

Book Review: The Quick and the Dead

Book Review: The Quick and the Dead by Louis L’Amour

When Duncan McKaskel and his wife Susanna decided to move out West with their young son Tom to homestead, they knew there would be dangers and difficulties.  But after their wagon train falls to cholera and the family strikes out on its own, they learn that the pioneer trail has deadlier dangers than anyone ever told them.  In particular, the family runs afoul of a gang of horse thieves.  One of the thieves winds up dead, and the remainder pursue the family.

The Quick and the Dead

You’d think it was a stroke of good fortune that the McKaskels came across Con Vallian, a drifter with detailed knowledge of the plains, who decides to help them along.  Except that Duncan is unsure of Con’s motives…the man seems unduly impressed with Susanna’s good looks.  Are they more in danger from their hunters, or from the man inside their camp?

Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) was one of America’s most popular writers of Western fiction, with 86 novels to his name.  This volume is considered one of his best, and was made into a movie in  1987.

There’s little wasted wordage in this book.  It gallops right along as the long chase continues.  The characterization is sparse; the mystery of Con Vallian’s motivation is not entirely cleared up when the viewpoint switches to him.  Does he have a creepy desire to steal Susanna away from Duncan, or is he just unfamiliar with tactful ways of complimenting a woman?  We can’t be sure for most of the book.

Most of the horse thief gang is clearer about their motivations, but we don’t learn much of their depths.  Some are not as bad as they could be, some just as horrible as advertised, and one (“The Huron”) is a mystery whose thought processes are unknown to the rest of the gang.  Their pursuit gives a tension to the story, even when they are not physically present.

Which brings me to the Native Americans.  An Arapaho hunting party make several appearances in the story, as a possible threat or potential allies.  Con says, “Injuns think different than us, but that doesn’t say they are wrong…just different.”  It’s a fair enough assessment for the time period.

The ending may seem a bit off if you were expecting the last man standing to finish the hunt, but it makes sense with the characters as established.

As expected from the title, there is a lot of violent death in the story.  Otherwise it should be suitable for junior high readers on up.  The 2011 paperback edition I read has a short biography of Mr. L’Amour, and some maps that help place the action.

Recommended to fans of classic Westerns.

Here’s a trailer for the movie version–be aware that the book has no shower scene.

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