Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gun Work: The Further Exploits of Hayden Tilden by J. Lee Butts (Western novel)

Former Deputy U.S. Marshal Hayden Tilden reminisces about his time working for "Hangin'" Judge Isaac Parker from the confines of the Rolling Hills Home for the Aged in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is the 1940s, and Tilden is 90 years old, but his memory is as good as ever. Gun Work begins with a transcribed interview taken by Tilden's biographer, Franklin J. Lightfoot Jr., reporter for the Arkansas Gazette.

With his fellow deputy marshals Carlton J. Cecil and Nate Swords in the Brotherhood of Blood, Tilden hunts down the worst of the worst as Judge Parker's "personal manhunter," and it's OK if he doesn't follow Frank Buck's famous motto "bring 'em back alive." In fact he's rather infamous for the opposite. As outlaw C.W. Jemson points out, "Heard 'bout the way you catch folks, Tilden. Not many as you go out lookin' for come back breathin'."

The main story of Gun Work is told by Tilden to his rest-home sweetheart Martha Frances Harrison ("she likes me to call her Martye") after the announcement that tonight's movie is to be about Wyatt Earp. Tilden allows that his West was not so romantic, and Martye urges him to tell her his story of "obsession, murder, blood, and betrayal."

This time, the assignment, delivered as always by Judge Parker's go-between George Wilton, is to hunt down Jesse and Leroy Coltrane, suspected of slaughtering the Cassidy family with their captured brother Benny, and to retrieve the surviving daughter, Daisy, from Fort Worth. But things are never quite that easy, especially since it seems there are always outlaws ready to challenge the notorious Marshal Tilden.

Author J. Lee Butts writes an exciting Western in Gun Work, with plenty of bullets and bravado. Modern Western writers aren't afraid to get down and dirty in their descriptions of the consequences of gun work, and J. Lee Butts offers up a level of bloodshed that even a horror fan can appreciate, including one highly memorable comment from a witness regarding a shot-off piece of skull: "Lord, Lord. Glob of goo still has the hair growin' out'n it."

That's also an example of the terrific, colorful language to be found in Gun Work. Butts comes armed with an arsenal of similes to describe everything from a falling body to a quiet room. And over 200 pages, he seems to never repeat a single one. The dialogue and repartee between Tilden, Cecil, and Swords is also a treat. Keep a special eye out for the conversation early on between Tilden and Swords regarding Swords' predilection for uncommon eats. ("Fry up some coconuts along with an armadiller, and you've got yourself one helluva meal, my friend.")

I was just looking for some newer work by a Western writer I hadn't read before, and I made quite a discovery in J. Lee Butts. Gun Work is entertaining on many levels, and I recommend it highly to those looking for something that combines humor and grit in a tight, action-filled package.

The Adventures/Exploits of Hayden Tilden, novels by J. Lee Butts:
1. Lawdog (2001)
2. Hell in the Nations (2002)
3. Brotherhood of Blood (2004)
4. Ambushed (2006)
5. Written in Blood (2009)
6. Gun Work (2010)

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