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.