Reading one of Thomas McNulty's westerns is always a huge treat for me. Coffin for an Outlaw is the fourth one I've read and reviewed, the others being Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, and Showdown at Snakebite Creek -- all published by Robert Hale of London, under the Black Horse Western banner. These are lovely, hardcover volumes with the title, author's name, and illustration printed right on the hard cover: no dust jacket whatsoever. At roughly 150 pages or so each, they read like 90-minute or 2 hour movies. And indeed, each of McNulty's westerns would make excellent western motion pictures. Directors like John Ford, William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy, John Sturges . . . any of these greats could have made these into wonderful films. Are you listening, Clint Eastwood?
Now, in Coffin for an Outlaw, we meet Chance Sonnet -- a former Texas Ranger turned bounty hunter. He's a good man who lost his wife and son to fever, a man consumed by grief and pain. He's also a fast gun who is believed to be dead, but who had changed his name and settled down to lead the quiet life of a carpenter. But when a young woman whom he has come to think of as a daughter kills herself, he's forced to strap on his guns again and take action. Sonnet has learned that a man named Eric Cabot is somehow responsible for the young girl's suicide, and Sonnet is a man who believes in accountability. Sonnet doesn't give a hoot in hell that Cabot comes from a wealthy and powerful family, or that his father is a state senator. Sonnet wants Cabot to account for his part in the girl's suicide, and so he sets out for Dodge City . . . with a coffin for the outlaw, Eric Cabot.
Word spreads that Sonnet is alive and well, and after him. So he does the only thing he can do: he hires a gang of killers to go after Sonnet. Along the way a struggling reporter, Jenny Connolly, hears the story of Sonnet and the coffin destined for Eric Cabot, and she takes off in pursuit of what she knows will be a great story. Another character who hears of Sonnet's quest is Captain William S. Walsh, a retired Texas Ranger who was one of Sonnet's closest friends, back in the day. Walsh arms himself, saddles up, kisses his wife goodbye, and sets out to find Sonnet and make certain that he doesn't "cross the line between justice and vengeance."
Besides Sonnet, Jenny, Walsh, Cabot, and a host of gunmen on Sonnet's trail, there's a would-be gunslinger named Toby Grapewin. Toby is a naïve and almost hapless young man who's seeking to earn some quick money and make a name for himself when he signs on the Cabot payroll. Along with several other gunmen, they attack Sonnet, who is not an easy man to kill. Sonnet wounds Toby during a shoot-out, but rather than leave him to die, he saves the boy, and the relationship that builds into a friendship between them is a nice touch, perfectly illustrating what kind of man Sonnet is: decent and caring, but with a strong sense of justice and again, accountability. When Jenny and Walsh finally join up with Sonnet, old friendships are renewed and a new relationship is born. And then the sparks of gunfire begin to fly and clouds of gunsmoke fill the air as Eric Cabot and his men close in on Sonnet and his friends. Will killing Cabot assuage Sonnet's pain and grief? That's the heart of this action-packed and character-driven novel? How and why Cabot is responsible for that girl's suicide is something we don't learn until late in the story, and I'm not giving that away here. And the ending was something I did not see coming, for among all the twists and turns of plot and character, that was the most surprising.
Once again Thomas McNulty has show us that he is a master of the western genre. His prose is as crisp and clear as mountain air: you can smell the sagebrush, taste the sparkling waters of a mountain stream, hear the creak of saddle leather, feel the heat of the western sun and the cold of a night spent in the woods. There is plenty of action, gunfights and fistfights, and dialogue that rings true and genuine for the genre . . . dialogue that moves the story forward and reveals character, the way great dialogue should. The novel is nicely-paced, too, and there is a sense of old-school sensibility, a comfortable familiarity of setting and theme that plays out in a well-constructed plot that is pure McNulty . . . uniquely his own style. I certainly will be reading more of his westerns.