Book review: The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams

The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams
The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado by Clifton Adams

In two masterfully written, fast-paced Westerns reprinted from the 1950s, a hot-headed teenager on the run from the law becomes a bandit... and the fastest gunman ever to come out of Texas.

The Desperado and the follow-up, A Noose for the Desperado, penned the following year, are two thrilling tales by Clifton Adams, a two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award.

A short story writer for pulp magazines in the late 1940s, Adams began his literary career as a novelist in 1950 with the first of two adventures featuring Talbert ‘Tall’ Cameron,
the young tearaway turned hard-bitten gunslinger.

Published by Gold Medal Books, The Desperado became a popular novel on its release and legendary crime writer Donald E. Westlake would later cite it as having an influence on his writing. It was also made into a hit B-movie by Allied Artists.

Bud Elmer, in his entertaining introduction to this fine Stark House reprint which comprises both novels, dryly remarks of the movie version: “For an act or two the plot streamlines the book pretty well. Then things go to heck in a hand-basket and any similarities with the book ride out of town.”

The novel is set in the early 1870s, with Texas under the rule of a carpetbag government led by northerner E.J. Davis whose despotic state police organisation administer rough justice to all who challenge their authority.

When Ray Novak, the former marshal’s son, loses his head and hits a Yankee cavalryman who happens to be one of the governor’s kinfolk, all hell breaks loose in John’s City. Before Novak flees town, he stops at Talbert ‘Tall’ Cameron’s home to warn him that the police will want to punish all local troublemakers.

Tall was guilty of a similar offence months earlier, clubbing a carpetbagger with his rifle butt, and so it seems likely that in Novak’s absence the police will make an example out of Tall.

Heeding the advice of his parents, he leaves town, intending to stay with his uncle on the Brazos for a while and then come back when the carpetbaggers are gone from Texas, but his love for local girl Laurin Bannerman stops him straying far from John’s City.

While evading the posse hot on his trail, he meets the legendary gunman Pappy Garret, a man who will change his life forever.

Pappy, an old-timer who proudly admits to having ‘never stolen a dime in his life,’ is a cold-hearted killer who carries ‘a beautiful piece of killing equipment,’ the sort that would make a man ‘glad to get shot by a gun like that, if he cared anything for firearms.’

He is wanted by both the North and South for ‘leading plundering guerrilla bands into the Kansas Free State’ during the Civil War, and has achieved mythical status as a highly feared outlaw, believed to be the fastest gun.

The two men are naturally drawn to each other. The ‘lonesome’ Pappy is ‘tired of death and running, but not knowing what else to do’ and feels a kinship with Tall. And Tall, in awe of Pappy, is ill-prepared for the dangerous life he has embarked on and needs guidance.

With his extensive knowledge and experience of killing and evading capture, Pappy is exactly the type of man Tall needs by his side. He voluntarily takes on the role of surrogate father, teaching Tall invaluable horsemanship skills and gun fighting techniques, and providing him with general life lessons which wanted outlaws need to know in order to survive.

The lessons serve Tall well for, as the hangman’s noose draws nearer and the price on his head increases, so does the number of quick-on-the-draw sharpshooters eager to put a bullet in him.

As pistol hammers click and the landscape explodes into sound and gunfire, governors, marshals and professional killers like the Creyton brothers and Black Joseph, the famous Indian gunman, strive to put him out of his misery.

What follows is a gritty, suspenseful, character-focused story of love, loss, remorse and retribution, told by a pitiful anti-hero who is stuck on a hopeless path to self-destruction. Caught up in the thrill of the chase and dramatic shootouts, he remarks: ‘It’s almost worth getting killed just to be part of the excitement of dying.’

During the Golden Age of the Western, the frequent complaint made by reviewers was that Western yarns were invariably full of bloated, grandiose writing, the plots were formulaic and the characters were paper-thin stereotypes.

Adams’ Westerns may tread familiar ground but complex, emotionally scarred gunslingers populate his rugged terrain, and expressive prose and swift-moving plots make his novels especially satisfying. The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado are two such noteworthy Westerns and are well worth hunting down.

(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)