Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Trailsman by authors writing as Jon Sharpe (Western series novels ghostwritten by Jon Messmann, David Robbins, James Reasoner, Robert J. Randisi, Ellen Recknor, Robert Vardeman and others)

Series titles reviewed:
Trailsman #271: St. Louis Sinners by Ellen Recknor
Trailsman #209: Timber Terror by [unknown to me]
Trailsman #3: Mountain Man Kill by Jon Messmann
Trailsman #309: California Carnage by James Reasoner
Trailsman #317: Mountain Mystery by David Robbins
Trailsman #210: The Bush League by Robert J. Randisi
Trailsman #234: Apache Duel by Robert Vardeman
Giant Trailsman #5: Idaho Blood Spoor by David Robbins

The Trailsman is one of the longest-running series of Western novels, having begun in 1980. Created by author Jon Messmann and published under the pseudonym Jon Sharpe, Messmann wrote most of the first books before his death in 2004. With a stable of experienced Western writers fulfilling the duties these days (though the name on the cover is still "Jon Sharpe"), the series is well past its 300th entry at this writing and is still going strong.

The series follows loner Skye Fargo, who, since he was eighteen, and after tracking down the people who killed his parents, has built a reputation as a trailer and tracker, hiring himself out as a combination protector/detective along the way to help people get out of difficult situations.

Since The Trailsman is an "adult" Western series, these jobs usually involve a comely female who is invariably willing to pay Fargo fringe benefits before he rides off again. Generally, there are between two and six sex scenes in among the fighting and shooting (these are traditional Westerns in every other sense), leading some of the more self-important Western readers to call them "Western porn."

But I think this just adds to the rough and tumble nature of the series and its protagonist, and there's nothing wrong with any Western that couldn't be helped by a few rolls in the hay. Readers respond positively to this, a fact supported by the series' success and longevity. (Some have even said that the success of series Westerns like The Trailsman keeps the door open for the publication of newer original Westerns.)

In any case, I enjoy them a great deal, though I wasn't sure I was going to when I read my first, #271 in the series, St. Louis Sinners, published in 2004. Though it had an interesting enough story (with enough of Oliver Twist included to make the connection unavoidable), I didn't get into the character or his predicament, and it just wasn't exactly what I was looking for.

Timber Terror by Ellen Recknor

I have since learned from more experienced readers of the series (like Western Fiction Review) that St. Louis Sinners is one of the lesser entries in the series, and author Ellen Recknor actually gets a few obvious things wrong about the character. Luckily, I was intrigued enough by Recknor's planting of Dickens into the Old West to try another, #209, Timber Terror from 1999.

Timber Terror wasn't a great improvement, but was a much quicker read. In it, Fargo gets involved with rival logging companies, and the book includes some suspenseful scenes involving Fargo in a log flume with giant tree trunks racing down toward him and the sides almost too slippery for purchase. (When a writer can make you fear for the safety of a series character who appears in more than 300 books, that's skill.)

Mountain Man Kill by Jon Messmann

Chance brought me into contact with a very early entry in the series, the third in fact, Mountain Man Kill from 1980. In it, Fargo is hired to find out who is stealing from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, so he sets himself up as a trapper in the mountains and settles in to wait.

I thought I was in for an interesting look at a sort of trapper detective — not to mention expecting this to be a more fully thought-out representation of the character, since the author could not have possibly been out of ideas by this time — but Messmann is much too focused on chronicling Fargo's time playing house (or tepee, as the case may be) with Suni, an Indian maiden given to him for saving a brave's life, to ever make the mystery, such as it is, more than of passable interest.

Now don't get me wrong: the sex is part of what I come to these books for, too, but by the sixth or seventh time reading about Suni's "copper-cream breasts," the idea begins to take hold that perhaps the author is just filling up pages to meet contract stipulations. (The publisher reportedly changed the direction of this part of the series in later years.) This one was the greatest disappointment, but only due to my higher expectations: Mountain Man Kill is otherwise surprisingly indistinguishable in style and content from the books written 20 years later.

California Carnage by James Reasoner 

Luckily, the next one I tried, immediately after and bought in the same batch from my local used book store, was a great improvement — one might even say its diametric opposite. In any case, California Carnage (#309, from 2007) was the book that has cemented my faith in the series, or at least in the current crop of entries.

Not surprisingly, it was written by prolific genre-spanning author James Reasoner, and it is undoubtedly the best Trailsman I've read yet. In fact, California Carnage is so good as to seem as if it could be enjoyed even by people who normally scoff at these books; it feels just like a traditional Western that has been crafted to fit around the character.

In California Carnage, Fargo heads to the Golden State to meet up with Hiram Stoddard, one of two men who want to build the first stagecoach line along the Old Mission Trail. But when Stoddard's men make an attempt on the life of Belinda, the daughter of Stoddard's rival Arthur Grayson, Fargo decides to ride with Grayson's team instead (I'm sure it doesn't hurt that she's the only mature female character in the book). Soon it's a race, with Fargo acting as bodyguard as Grayson's stagecoach makes its way up the Trail, with Stoddard, who is willing to do anything to win, close behind.

Along the way, the crew meet up with a salty coach driver, a ghost who's searching for lost treasure, a girl who needs saving, and a boy who's rather taken with her. Reasoner makes the interesting choice of focusing on the emotional aspect in the few of Fargo's sex scenes, using the kind of "two into one" language more suited to the historical romances on Reasoner's bibliography.

My only problem with this is that it sets Fargo up to actually fall in love, but then the anthologic nature of the series forces him to be eager to get back on his own at the end. Still, that's a minor quibble in what was a really terrific read. I mean, stagecoaches, a ghost, and young love — California Carnage has something for everyone.

Mountain Mystery by David Robbins

In #317, 2008's Mountain Mystery, Fargo is found by Mabel Landry, who wants the famous Trailsman to locale her missing brother, Chester. He agrees, until Mabel says she must go along. The stubborn Mabel won't take no for an answer but proves to be little more than trouble for Skye, who has to rescue her from the Untilla Indians at least twice.

Fargo also has a run-in with Malachi Skagg — with whom he has a history that is described (though I don't know if this history actually took place in an earlier book in the series, or in the "inbetweens") — and from whose settlement Chester last wrote to Mabel. Eventually, Fargo is involved in a multilayered search and rescue, and author David Robbins (Rio Largo) keeps the pages flying by. He skimps on the sex scenes, though, and in fact the action stops entirely once he attempts to insert an instruction manual on sensitivity in the midst of one:

When Fargo had slept with his first dove, he learned an important lesson. She told him that most men [ignored] the woman's needs.... She explained to him that foreplay meant a lot ... that touching and kissing helped bring a woman to the brink so that her release was as powerful as the man's.... If touching and kissing helped things along, then by God he would touch and kiss until he straddled a volcano. [p.76]

Mountain Mystery starts out great, but in the end it only hints at the interesting aspects of a couple of characters that seem intriguing at first but then devolve into the usual ciphers necessary to push the hero's plot along. Robbins, however, is known for his innovation in the genre, and so manages to incorporate a substance that is common today, but that is rarely mentioned in Western novels.

He also utilizes the kind of action currently popular in extreme crime novels — a kind of Biblical torture like that which made Allan Guthrie's novel Hard Man so controversial upon its release.

This combination of traditional Western action with modern tropes is what makes Robbins one of the more interesting Western authors working today. Unfortunately, with series novels being what they are, his attempt at getting the reader emotionally involved with the characters' relationships falls flat (and in fact feels like an insult) when Robbins is required to end Mountain Mystery in the expected way.

The Bush League by Robert J. Randisi

Author Robert J. Randisi is one of my favorite Western writers, and his The Gunsmith is certainly my favorite series, so when I learned he had written 1999's The Bush League (#210), I had to try it out. In it, the owner of a team playing the new sport of baseball hires Fargo to lead them across the Wild West to San Francisco, playing a few exhibition games along the way.

Imagine my disappointment when not only was The Bush League only 150 pages, stopping abruptly before any closure was allowed — I was misled by the 16-page preview of Badlands Bloodbath in the back into thinking that it was at least a little longer — but it also was short on sexiness (the scenes there were, were few and dull). The author also makes Fargo look dumb by having him not know anything about baseball, and yet (contractually, I have to assume) gives him the physical prowess to hit five home runs in a row.

Apache Duel by Robert Vardeman

My next was a disappointment as well, #234: Apache Duel from 2001, in which Skye Fargo finds himself up against two formidable foes: the Apache Sharp Knife and gunrunner Big Red Frederickson. The author of this one is Robert Vardeman, who writes his own Westerns as Karl Lassiter and has written scores of novels in the Slocum series by "Jake Logan."

Vardeman's prose is serviceable and workmanlike, showing little flair or personality. This makes the action fast, and the beginning of Apache Duel was especially exciting, but everything else is dull in comparison to the work of other authors. I encountered these same traits in one of his Slocum titles, Slocum and the Pomo Chief, and I may simply need to avoid his work in the future.

For vacation reading, I decided to seek out the work of an author I'd been impressed with in the past, and so chose the fifth of the Giant Trailsman novels (these are 100 or so pages longer than the norm). David Robbins's Idaho Blood Spoor has a lot going for it: fast action, smooth-flowing prose, and because of the added length, deeper characterization.

Idaho Blood Spoor by David Robbins

In Idaho Blood Spoor, a rich man's son disappears (along with the son's wife and friend), and the tycoon hires the best trackers he can find to locate the boy. (He seems to not care whether the other two are found.) This group includes, of course, the famous Trailsman, a brother-sister duo, and two old friends of Fargo's. This Magnificent Five head out (separately) in search of the young man and a hefty reward.

Robbins does an excellent job of making the quintet of trackers into distinctive individuals. Their competition and mutual respect, along with their heated pursuit of $20,000 for the one to find the man's son, make Idaho Blood Spoor a suspenseful read full of human greed and machinations. Robbins is one of the Western genres most prolific and accomplished authors, and his Trailsman novels are always some of the best ones available.

In conclusion, the quality of the books in The Trailsman series (and sometimes within a single book) is very uneven, but gems are hidden throughout, and these fast-paced, sexy reads are always worth the small cover price. For a while, however, I may limit my own purchases to those written by James Reasoner — or perhaps David Robbins, who is an experienced Western series writer in his own right (penning the Wilderness series as "David Thompson") and writes the vast majority of the Trailsman titles published in the series these days.

The Trailsman series, along with the other Action Westerns once published monthly by Penguin, has ended, but they are still available used and in e-book formats.


Steve M said...

Don't know how I managed to miss this post on the Trailsman books. I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the books you've read. I think that most of the Trailsman books provide good, well written, tales that are very enjoyable to read, although, as you say, there are a few poorer entries. Seems one or two of the writers don't bother to research the character before writing the books.

As to whether Fargo catches up with the men he's hunting I suggest you keep an eye-out for number 6 in the series (at least I think that's the one as it's a long time since I read it), that might answer some of your questions ;)

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words. The feeling is mutual. It was a great relief to come across someone who not only admits to reading series Westerns (and doesn't think they should be sold "behind the counter") but also feels they're worthy of articulate opinion.

And I'll keep an eye out for Trailsman #6. :)

Billy A. said...

Great review on The Trailsman series. As a fan and reader of the books I found it refreshing to find that people also read this series as well as Westerns in general. So great job on the review!

Craig Clarke said...


Thanks for the kind words. I know how you feel about finding others who read Westerns. You can find lots of reviews on some terrific Westerns throughout my site, and you should absolutely check out one of my favorite blogs, the Western Fiction Review, for even more!

stan said...

I personally prefer the earlier Trailsman books by Jon Messmann who created the character. However, I would agree that maybe uses to many sex scenes as filler. Give the guy a break though cause he probably wrote 150 or more of the tales. Of course David Robbins and James Reasoner also did great work. Like some others have stated there are several real duds sprinkled into the series but overall the books are good reads. I also highly recommend the Zeke Masters series, my next favorite after Trailsman.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for your comment and especially for your recommendation of the Zeke Masters series, which I haven't tried yet.

I never meant to give Mr. Messmann's work short shrift; I was merely offering a comparison of the books I'd read to that point. Each author's work has something that appeals to me, and some of my favorite authors are prolific.

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