Red River Reunion by John Layne, out on October 15, 2020.
I’ve never read a Western before, so Red Red River Reunion was my first entry into the genre. The book is a sequel to Gunslingers, which I haven’t read, but this volume stands alone.
The story concerns Ben Chance, Ranger Wes Payne, Deputy Marshall Luxton Danner and a town called Range on the Red River in Texas. Range is a new town and being plagued by bandits and, as the story unfolds, it turns out that there is more to the banditry than random robberies and rustling.
I enjoyed the pace of the book. It wasn’t a question of one cliff-hanger ending after another, but rather of becoming engaged with characters who were more than cardboard cut-outs. The two main characters, Payne and Danner, were conflicted in interesting ways, misfits in wider society and only at ease in the midst of conflict and danger. There is also a wry humour that runs through the book. Here, Payne is removing a customer from a bar fight when he is accosted by a nun:
She looked at Wes with cool, emotionless expression. “Did you have to hit that man so hard, Mister?” she asked the big Ranger.
Startled, Wes paused. “Well, Sister, I didn’t know there was any other way.”
And, in a bar
“What’ll ya have, stranger?” The old man spewed through a toothless mouth, with breath rancid enough to singe a man’s whiskers.
There is also some beautiful descriptive writing:
The sun crept skyward, its translucent yellow beams bursting above distant rolling hills. Dawn arrived with the combination of cool ground air tamped down by the warmth of the sun. The residents of Riverbend started another busy day. Doors opened, livestock rumbled about, and the occasional wagon plowed down Main Street. The fast-drying mud in the streets from all the recent rain had thickened considerably, making it difficult for wagons and carriages to navigate. Roosters crowed, and the sound of cattle calls could be heard deep in the distance.
I also enjoyed the depictions of early settler life, the way in which towns swiftly became dominated by a senior entrepreneur, some good and some evil. There is the isolation and the vulnerability of these small settlements to hostile forces.
The downside of the book was that the main characters were essentially super-heroes, over-sized men whose every shot hit its mark – and there were rather a lot of shots. In terms of body count, the book is well into Spaghetti Western territory. That the characters are aware of their own bloodthirstiness but casually dismiss it, makes them somewhat repugnant.
There were also quite a few loose ends. There is a ranch which is raided, the parents killed and one daughter abducted, but we never really find out what happened, and we aren’t given quite enough information to piece it together.
Another area where I felt a disconnect was the bad guy. The book is told from multiple points of view, so we as readers had information that the protagonists did not. This device can be very strong, but only if we as readers see how the characters come to know what we know. In this book – and at least to some extent because Payne and Danner murdered everyone before asking questions – they come to know through a process of osmosis. It didn’t convince.
I enjoyed my first encounter with this genre, although not enough to dash back for another read. But for afficionados, this is a fun yarn, well-researched and at moments thought-provoking and evocative.