Saturday, July 7, 2012

TRAIL OF THE BURNED MAN, by Thomas McNulty

It's been quite a while since I've read a really good, authentic western. So by the time I finished chapter one of Thomas McNulty's Trail of the Burned Man, I knew I was in for one great ride. And this hardcover edition, a "Black Horse Western" from Robert Hale Ltd of London, is absolutely beautiful. Simply outstanding! I wish the publisher would put out sword and sorcery, and fantasy. These books are so cool!

This is a classic western, wonderfully written, and brought to life by characters that pop clean off the page with such clarity and reality that you'll smell the leather of their saddles and feel the trail dust in the back of your throat. If this were a 1950s film, it would have starred Randolph Scott, would have been directed by Budd Boetticher, and would have co-starred Lee Marvin as the sadistic Burned Man. In the 1960s and 70s, this would have made a great feature directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Rafe Morgan is the main character, who rides into Twisted Oak one afternoon and gets himself tangled up in a fight with Dutch Williams, while trying to stop him from beating the bartender whose whiskey he and his crew don't much cotton too. What then happens to ornery ol' Dutch, and is somewhat of an accident, is cruel and painful and even heart-rending, and you might feel a bit sorry for him--iffin' he wasn't as mean and nasty as a rattlesnake who's just had its tail stepped on.

What follows is a fast-paced, action-packed tale of greed, betrayal and revenge that doesn't get in the way of letting the characters live and breathe, giving us insight and plenty of great moments of crackling dialog. We get to know these people, who have led real lives, and we come to like the good guys and despise the outlaws. There's also a fine mix of humor, human drama, and the blossoming of true romance. And all throughout this wonderful novel we are allowed to savor McNulty's oft' poetic prose, which is as clear as a mountain stream. He knows how to engage the reader with a great story and believable characters, and he knows how to set a tone and atmosphere that picks you up and sets you right down in the middle of a real western setting. Here's a sample of his lean, crisp prose:

The mountain sloped up steeply, like the broad shoulders of a slumbering giant, and they could see the buff-colored cliffs that dispersed into serrated ridges towering above the verdant timberland. As they moved closer the mountains reminded Rafe of a castle, a dark old fortress throwing its long shadow across the meadows and valleys.

Sweet, isn't it? Try this one on for size:

Ben's watch was uneventful. All he saw in three hours were a dozen deer gliding through the starlit grass like pale, brown ghosts.

Characters like Deputy U.S. Marshal Ethan O'Hara (whom John Wayne could have played to perfection), villains like Dutch and Carlos Duranos, blacksmith Adam Washington, the almost mystical Black Wolf, and most importantly, the lovely and fiery Amy O'Hara, the marshal's daughter, are people you won't soon forget. The finale is slam-bang action, with plenty of brutal and heart-breaking moments in between

I look forward to saddling up and riding out with more of Thomas McNulty's westerns. He's the real McCoy. :)