Monday, April 19, 2010

Death of a Hangman, a Ralph Compton novel by Joseph A. West (Western)

Since his debut, Me and Johnny Blue in 2000, author Joseph A. West has produced over two dozen Western novels, most recently under the Ralph Compton banner. Though West has stated that "I can’t write in Ralph’s style, nor do I try," he's producing some of the best work published in the interest of continuing the late Compton's legacy.

(If you're not familiar with this, a handful of new novels a year are published under the author "Ralph Compton" but with "a Ralph Compton novel by [author]" at the bottom of the cover and on the title page. This is one of the more respectful work-for-hire situations going, since most books published under "house names" don't credit the original author at all.)

When I first started reading new Compton Westerns, I encountered West's more "traditional" takes on the genre, Doomsday Rider and Vengeance Rider, and was not overly impressed. But there must have been something about those books because last summer, I gave him another try with The Man from Nowhere and was bowled over by its originality. This led to my choosing it for my Favorite Reads of 2009 list and to my recent purchase of the novel on shelves now, April 2010's Death of a Hangman.

When they fought together for the Confederacy, Brigadier General Henry J. Dryden saved the life of Major Charles Pike. Now Judge Dryden (known as "Hangin' Hank" for his particular brand of justice) is dying of cancer and wants to go from New Mexico Territory to his home in Texas to be buried there. He asks Pike to escort him, sort of calling in an owed favor.

The problem is that Dryden sent outlaw Clem Dredge's brother to the gallows. Dredge wants revenge, and he's offered a $500 reward for Dryden — dead or alive. It's up to Pike to get Dryden (and his whore, Loretta) safely to Texas while being pursued by bounty hunters of every stripe: professional and otherwise.

Author Joseph A. West offers up another original Western with Death of a Hangman. It is filled with terrific characterizations and West's usual cast of flawed characters. Always interested in entertaining the reader, he doesn't give Pike any chance to rest, even confronting him with one Ephraim Satin ("half Apache, half wildcat, an' all son of a bitch") on his way to the judge.

Before they get to Texas, they'll hold an impromptu trial, Pike will find out what kind of man the judge really is, and he'll go through more hell (with less to show for it) than any God-fearing man should be allowed. But, of course, all this conflict is highly entertaining and is what makes Death of a Hangman such a solid, page-turning read full of plot twists and surprising directions from West, who seems to improve his craft with each passing book.


Joseph A. West said...

Thank you for the review, Craig. It is deeply appreciated.
I should mention that the Loretta character was savagely edited (not by the publisher, but by another party). This prompted the following exchange between my wife, a stern Yankee, and myself:
Emily: They really gutted the Loretta character, didn't they?
Me: Yeah, and she was one of the best characters I ever rut.
Emily: Wrote.
Me: Whatever.
Ah well, a hired scribe does what he'd told. But I do miss the profane, sexy Loretta I first described.
Joe West

Unknown said...

That's sad, Joe, but it does seem to be a sign of the publishing times in which we live and try to work. Did you see the latter part of the article I had in the online Black Horse Extra, "Justice and the Western"?

Joseph A. West said...

Yes, I read about the problems you had with Misfit Lil. I wonder what the publishers would say about the Chinese girls who were forced into prostitution in western towns and had a life expectancy of about two years?
How about the whores who died of disease, drugs and alcohol,their shoulders scarred all over by bite marks? Old women by the time they reached 25 - if they lived that long.
Too raw, huh?
To be fair to my publisher, the ravaging of Loretta didn't come from my editor. The last words he had for me were: "There are no damned rules. Just write the book."
Despite my setbacks, I'm still taking him at his word.

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like another winner from Joe. Gotta track it down!

Craig Clarke said...

You're welcome for the review, Joe. I'm psyched to read more soon.

Your comment makes me curious. Who but the publisher would be able to dictate the content of your book? Does the Compton estate have final approval over what goes out under their forebear's name?

Joseph A. West said...

Indeed they do.
They have a number of "Thou shalts," profanity and taking the Lord's name in vain topping the list.
The Compton family aren't real bad, they're just another irritant in today's publishing business.

Craig Clarke said...

Well, in this reader's opinion, Loretta is still one of your more entertaining characters. I especially like how she retains her dignity all the way through.

Related Posts with Thumbnails