Friday, June 16, 2017
Forgotten Books: The Fourth Gunman by Merle Constiner
Sometimes, a western features a guy walking, riding, talking, and thinking. But little in the way of shooting.
THE FOURTH GUNMAN by Merle Constiner is the first book I’ve read by him. It is one half of an Ace Double, the flip side being SLICK ON THE DRAW by Tom West. I own a handful of Ace Doubles and, based on the description, I chose Constiner’s book first.
The story revolves around George Netfield, proprietor of a saloon up in Kirkville, Wyoming (I think). He is what you’d typically find in a western written in 1958: tough, lean, cunning, quick on the draw, but quicker on talking. But the end of chapter 1, one of his workers lays dead. He realizes there are some bad men roaming around the county, many of them from the 7 Diamond ranch. Additionally, some of the finer men in the county are gathering up steam in a more legal manner. Lastly, a small cadre of gun totters made their presence known. I think you can guess how many there were by the title.
Little by little, Netfield seems to be the only man who discerns what’s really going on. He’s out to stop it, but roadblocks and bad hombres keep getting in his way. A rich man by the name of Crewe, old and somewhat enfeebled, doesn’t think much of Netfield’s suspicions, especially considering Crewe has employed two of the bad guys. Little by little, the noose around Netfield tightens, and he has only a few allies…if they can stay alive.
Perhaps it’s just an assumption but I’ve always thought of westerns, especially older pulp-inspired westerns from the 1950s, as action-packed romps with lots of shoot-outs and fighting. THE FOURTH GUNMAN certainly has its share of fighting, but it is few and far between. There are a few fine action sequences, one in a lumber yard that’s positively stellar. But I have to admit much of the action was over so quick that I have double-back and re-read certain sentences to verify bullets were loosed. The action was so quick that the gunshots were over in a sentence. At first I was surprised, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that true violence back in the old west was often swift, brutal, deadly, and over within seconds. Then my respect for Constiner’s book grew.
But still it seemed that Netfield did a lot of talking. The story read a bit like a detective tale, where Netfield would go here or there, gathering pieces of information, and then piecing it together. He wouldn’t always tell other characters and, thus, we readers would also be in the dark. But along the way, the cast of suspects keeps growing and you pretty much figure out what the bad guys are up to, and then it is only a matter of time to see how Netfield would get through the book.
Whenever I read westerns—heck, any book really—I always have a pencil in my hand so I can circle or underline a word, a phrase, or a bit of history. There were few pages without a mark when I completed this novel, not the least of which was Constiner’s great descriptions of the landscape and the towns. For a genre that likes and prefers lean storytelling and descriptions, Constiner made the extra effort to color his prose well.
I enjoyed THE FOURTH GUNMAN and will certain pick up future Merle Constiner books when I see them.
Anyone else read this book? Any recommendations for other Constiner books?