By Scott A. Cupp
This is the 179th in my series of Forgotten Books.
This week I decided to write about a book that really is forgotten and undeservedly so.
I have known Al Sarrantonio for something close to 30 years. We were introduced by Pat LoBrutto, who was the editor at Doubleday at the time. Over the years, I would periodically run into Al at conventions, generally the World Fantasy Convention. I know it has been at least 10 years since we last met at a convention.
He’s written in a lot of genres including science fiction, fantasy and horror. But, for me, he is best seen in his Westerns. West Texas is the first of Sarrantonio’s Western novels featuring Thomas Mullin, a former buffalo soldier working in west Texas. Mullin had been a lieutenant at Fort Davis, a rarity for a black soldier in the 1890’s. He has been retired by Captain Seavers, who looks and acts like his idol, General George Custer. Seavers desperately wants to have military glory against the Mescalero Apaches and, through that, get out of Fort Davis and rise to the rank of general. He actively hates Mullin but finds himself between the rock and hard place when a Senator’s son goes missing. Mullin is the only one capable of finding the young man, and Seavers has been told to use Mullin and give him whatever he might need or want to do it.
To assist in the search, four Pinkerton agents have been sent from St. Louis. They are to be met by another buffalo soldier, Trooper Lincoln Reeves. Pinkertons from this period had a reputation for being thugs and strike breakers and these men certainly fill that bill.
Mullins needs no help from them, though. He is an educated man who is quite familiar with his environment. His favorite activity is reading the adventures of Sherlock Holmes from issues of The Strand magazine. Using the detection techniques displayed in those stories and adapting them to his environment bring Mullin to the conclusion that there is a serial killer working in the area. The killer’s targets are young men under the age of 17.
Trooper Reeves has to deal with the Pinkertons, who are intent on drinking themselves to death. Their leader Captain Murphy succeeds in doing just that, leaving three detectives. The leader of this group, Porter, has actually been calling the shots all along and is a racist who plans to blame Murphy’s death on Reeves and attempts to lynch the young trooper. Fortunately there are no trees, so the group, afraid of Porter, assists. But they are drunk and do a poor job of tying Reeves. They attach the noose to his horse and send it out to the desert dragging Reeves.
Reeves extricates himself and finds his way to Mullin where he becomes Watson to Mullins’ Holmes. He wants to learn more but cannot read so Mullins promises to teach him once the killer is found. Meanwhile, the Mescaleros are planning on attacking the fort and Seavers seems intent on emulating his chosen hero.
This was a fun book. I read this nearly 25 years ago, so I remembered very little, other than recalling that I had really liked it. The book did not disappoint on re-reading. It is a good combination of Holmesian mystery, serial killer thriller and Western, falling easily into each category.
Unfortunately the hardback was published by M. Evans and Co. who did a few Westerns in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I have westerns that they did by Bill Pronzini, Richard Matheson, Bill Crider, Livia Washburn and Ed Gorman, among others. I don’t think their print runs were very big and their distribution was spotty. So I was glad to get this one when it came out and to get its sequel, Kitt Peak, a few years later.
So, if you think you might like this, give it a shot. There are copies available from the usual sources for reasonable prices.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.