Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rio Desperado by Gordon D. Shirreffs (Western novella)

Burke Dane had to cut down his lynched younger half-brother Charley Mayo. Not he's on the hunt for the sidewinder that did it. The only thing Burke has to go on is the braided rawhide rope that Charley was hanged with.

Looking for more evidence, he comes across a fellow in danger and saves his life. His name is Jesse Lester, and he and Burke become tenuous friends. At least until Burke finds out that Jesse was in his predicament because he was looking for something: "a damned good rawhide reata" borrowed by an amigo who lost it.

Author Gordon D. Shirreffs is a little-remembered name now, but he was once a Western powerhouse, producing over 70 novels during his 40-year career, including the classic Quint Kershaw trilogy of mountain-man novels, The Untamed Breed, Bold Legend, and Glorieta Pass. Modern Western writers like Robert J. Randisi, James Reasoner, Jory Sherman, Mike Linaker, and Peter Brandvold list him as a major influence in their interviews on Western Fiction Review.

Those who like a mystery in their Westerns will enjoy Rio Desperado as Burke goes "undercover" to find the one(s) responsible for Charley's death — and find the $5,000 he was last seen with, to deliver it to Charley's wife and children. The book shows how there are some things that can't be done alone, and deals that must be made and followed through on.

The edition of Rio Desperado I read was packaged as a novel, but at 120 pages of relatively large print, it is little more than a novella. I was not surprised to learn that it was originally published as one half of an Ace Double, along with Voice of the Gun, also by Shirreffs.

But genre-fiction readers know that the novella is often the peak of storytelling. I often prefer novels, but the novella lets the story set its own length and pace, without concession to sales potential. Of course, once complete, its only usual option is to be collection in a book with others of its kind, unless, like Shirreffs' was even in 1988, your name is draw enough to sell one on its own.

Rio Desperado is fast-paced but does not stint on character. Dane is nicely complex, and Shirreffs keeps the mysterious nature in most of the supporting cast until it is their time. Shirreffs also doesn't shy away from the honesty of life in the Old West, like how Lester's sister "likes nice things" but hasn't "got a dime," so she uses what she does have. ("'I've got some stock-in-trade.' She looked down at her lovely body. 'Something Clete Hinch is mighty interested in.... I'm free, white and over twenty-one. You do your type of mankilling and I'll do mine, Jesse.')"


Dorman Nelson said...

Howdy, I got to know Gordie as we lived not far from him. He was scrappy and once unloaded a 45 at a Zero in WWII. He will be missed. Fortunately his voice lingers in the 150 or so books and all the short stories....thanks for posting.
Dorman Nelson

Craig Clarke said...

That's a great story. :) Thanks for your comment.

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