Friday, July 24, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Comanche Scalp by William Colt MacDonald

Let me put it this way: I’m glad William Colt MacDonald’s The Comanche Scalp was not my first western. If it had been, I might not have read another. If this book had been the first adventure of railroad detective Gregory Quist I read, I likely would not have been inspired to write my own railroad detective story at Beat to a Pulp.

Yeah, it wasn’t that good. Too bad, really. It started off with a scene that would have likely find a home on the cover of an early 1970s Pink Floyd album. Gregory Quist, the paragon of virtue, is riding along when he happens upon a strange sight: a dead man, sitting in a boat, in the middle of dry ground, nary a sign of water anywhere. He investigates and is soon shot at. Okay, that’s a good start to a western--or any story, really. In the scramble to evade the unseen shooter and return fire, Quist finds a Comanche Scalp, decorated with beads and mounted on some animal skin. He tucks it away and out of sight as the sheriff of Corinth City and a group of men happen upon Quist, put a gun on him for killing the shooter, and take him back to town.

Here, as in Mascarada Pass Quist’s reputation precedes him. The sheriff, nicknamed “Smokey,” all but falls over his own feet in the awesome wonder of Quist’s brains. Quist agrees to look into the business of the dead man as long as it doesn’t interfere with his railroad detectifying. What commences here is a hundred or so pages of talk, talk, and more talk. You can’t have gunfights on every page. I know that. But at least throw me a bone in the form of *some* action. Dull. And the threads of clues was minimal. I didn't catch'em if they were there.

Then MacDonald breaks one of the fundamental rules of mystery fiction: give the reader a heads up that A Big Reveal will happen at the end of the book. When Quist dropped his big bombshell, I was like “No way!” I didn’t see that coming at all. You’ve got to at least give the reader something. Anything. Of all the things I grew to dislike with this book, this cardinal sin of writers is tops.

Let’s also consider the cover blurb on 1973 printing: “This time Quist is arrested as a murderer and a comanche scalp proves to be more than a clue.” Arrest? Really? The “arrest” constitutes the minutes it took the sheriff to put a gun on Quist until he figured out who Quist really was. That ain’t an arrest proper. I’ll admit that I started and stopped this book three times before forcing myself to finish it. I had forgotten that Quist was “arrested” and kept waiting for the actual arrest. Only at the end did I realize “Oh, they meant that fake arrest.” Gotcha. Whatever.

So, I’m one for two in reading Gregory Quist novels and two for three in reading westerns (my second western was Guns Along the Brazos by Day Keene; yes, that Day Keene). I have about eight more Quist books on the shelf. Ever since I first read Mascarada Pass, MacDonald’s books, and Quist stories in particular, have been high on my To Find List. In fact, I keep a list of all Quist books in my wallet in case I happen upon a few at a used book store. I even found one in Whitney, TX, last week while on vacation. Already had it. I can only hope that the other Quist books will be better than The Comanche Scalp. If not, I’ll just have to remove that list from my wallet and stop the search.

I think I might also initiate the 100-page rule first used by the folks at Bookgasm: if the book don’t excite by page 100, put it down and move on. There’s just too many other books to read than to spend time on a clunker. My only goal as a writer: don’t write a clunker. The Comanche Scalp is a clunker. Just move on.

For more books of forgottenness, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.


Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks for taking the hit for us on this one. That is a kind of intriguing opening, but sounds like that's all there was. I have a 30 page rule. If I read more than 30 I will almost always finish it. Even if I have to scan the last part.

Scott Parker said...

Charles - Well, 30 pages in, I was still with it. Only later, around page 112, that I started flipping to the back of the book to see how many I had left and how I could go about breaking it down into manageable gulps of prose. Another thing: the gunfights, when they did occur, we so short. I wanted a longer, more complex set piece. On to the next book!

Barbara Martin said...

I don't wait for 100 pages. It's the first two chapters or nothing. Often it doesn't get better, sometimes worse. Only in the older books where the story takes a little while to get going by the third chapter.

When I receive my ARCs I read the first chapter before putting them aside to review the most current one. One of the recent ones I felt like quitting on the first page, the second page wasn't any better. All from an author with other published books.

Reviewing books, Scott, is good training material for us to write better stories.

Jack said...

When buying a book I read page one. If I'm still propped up at the shelves after 10 minutes I buy it.
If my memory serves me well William Colt MacDonald was very hit and miss. I think I read two misses and one hit. Then never bothered again. But, hey, I was much younger then and sometimes I pick up an old title and see it in a different light.
Maybe, I should try a WCM - but then maybe not.

Scott Parker said...

Barbara - Wow. That's brutal. So, what do you do when you receive an ARC that you don't like?

Jack - WCM's first book I read, Mascarada Pass, I enjoyed. Now I'm going to see if the third WCM book I read is any good. Don't worry: I'll report on it.

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