Carl Duncan is in trouble. He is driving his horse as hard as possible over the flat plains in Kansas. Behind him are a band of Indians, themselves on horseback.
And they’re gaining.
Knowing he can not make it to the railhead of the Kansas Pacific, the new line being constructed across Indian territory, Duncan goes to plan B: he climbs a telegraph pole and taps into the line. If only he can send a message, he can tell of what he knows. There’s a white man behind the recent Indian attacks against the railhead. And Duncan knows who it is. Alas for him, arrows puncture his leg and he’s captured before he can reveal the name. A pity for him, but not for us readers. Because we don’t know what Duncan saw, we are treated to a delightful tale of the old west.
First in a Series
Thirty years ago, James Reasoner wrote FARADAY: THE IRON HORSE. It is the first of a new series featuring a detective agency based in Kansas, headed by Matthew Faraday. Conceived by author Paul Block, who was an editor at Book Creations, Inc., the Faraday series was intended to be standalone tales with bossman Faraday as the through line. Each entry would focus on a different detective in the agency. It is a great concept and one that enabled multiple writers to put their stamp on this short-lived collection of books.
Matthew Faraday is an older man, but with the fire of justice still burning brightly through him. He takes a meeting with an old friend, Amos Rowland, owner of the Kansas Pacific railroad. The baron suspects the troubles out near the railhead are part of a larger means of sabotaging his line. He wants Faraday’s agency to investigate.
Faraday has just the man. Daniel Britten, aged around twenty-five, is not what you’d think of as a typical western hero. He’s shorter than most, and much more educated. Those qualities, and his upstanding honor, is what carries this tale forward. After meeting with Faraday and Rowland--and Rowland’s beautiful daughter, Deborah--Britten is dispatched out to the railhead to conduct his investigation under the ruse of him being a draftsman.
Once at the railhead, Britten starts looking around, asking questions, and a slew of interesting characters emerge. Deborah is there, having gone out on the same train as Britten. Her fiance, Terrence Jennings, is the construction boss, a man as big as the west with the fists and brawn to back it up. Sam Callighan is an old buffalo man, a surveyor, and one who has had good relations with the Indians. Mordecai Vint is an old geezer, a trader, and one who has been around the area often. His granddaughter, Laura, is his only friend. Throw in a few cowboys and other assorted people, and you’ve got the old west version of a whodunit.
And that’s what makes this book so much fun to read. Through Britten’s investigative process, he discovers clues, sifts the evidence, and formulates theories. Things happen and he is left constantly guessing. As are the readers.
A Gifted Storyteller
Reasoner weaves all of these people in and out of the main narrative with an ease that can only come from years behind a keyboard. His deft characterizations make all these people walk off the page, full-blooded and alive. The dexterity by which he shows you only what you need to see will keep you guessing the identity of the true villain until the last bit of the book. At least he did for me.
I’ve made no secret that I admire Reasoner’s manner of writing. It was his Longarm books that paved the way for my own Calvin Carter: Railroad Detective series. But as I was sucked into this story, two things happened. One, time slipped by imperceptibly. I woke on Sunday thinking I’d read a chapter or two before church. Over two hours later, I had to reluctantly put the Kindle down and hurriedly get ready.
The second is the sheer storytelling prowess. It feels effortless. Now, as a writer myself, I know it takes work, and lots of it, to get a story ready for the public. And with more than 365 books under his belt, Reasoner is a modern pulp master. I constantly highlighted passages, making notes not only about the story, but also about turns of phrase, ways the author highlighted this or that thing.
It is so rewarding to become engrossed in a James Reasoner novel. That THE IRON HORSE is so darn entertaining on the action, western, and mystery fronts is, well, par for the course with a Reasoner book.
We’ve come to expect nothing less.
Of the fiction I've read to date in 2019, this is my favorite. How much did I enjoy this story? I already ordered THE COLORADO SPECIAL as written by Bill Crider.
I was curious about the process Reasoner went through to revise this story from the original 1988 published book, and he graciously answered some of my questions, including the genesis of the entire series.
"Paul Block, who was an editor at Book Creations Inc. as well as writing books for them from time to time, came up with the concept and Matthew Faraday's name, but as I recall, there wasn't really a series bible, just discussions on the phone about what the series would be like. It was set up so that each book would be a stand-alone with different agents working for Faraday and his agency. I remember Paul sent me a list of possible heroes, just their names and maybe a one-line description, and Daniel Britten was one of them. The plot of THE IRON HORSE was mine, though, and I assume the other authors came up with the plots for their books. I know Bill [Crider] did because he and I were always in pretty close contact and knew what the other one was writing."
"In order to produce the new edition of THE IRON HORSE, Livia scanned and OCRed a copy of the original paperback, went through the file to clean up the OCR errors, then turned it over to me. I went through the file adding, deleting, and rewriting to bring it more in line with the way I write now. It's not like there are huge differences in the two versions, but there are lots and lots of small changes that I think make the writing flow better and give more depth to the characters."