Monday, March 27, 2017

Mount TBR #14

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Mister St. John – Loren D. Estleman

This 1983 Western has a Wild Bunch theme. An outlaw turned peacekeeper, Irons St. John, collects a motley group to chase down the daring bank and train robbing Buckner gang. The gang hasn’t killed anybody but used smooth con-artist methods to get past guards and bank managers. In fact, the posse knocks off more people getting to the gang, an irony Estleman has the taste not beat us readers over the head with. The gun-play and fisticuffs violence are gritty and gory, but never gratuitous.

The members of the posse are George American Horse, Crow man and experienced bad-guy chaser, and his colleague in a Wild West Show, Wild Bill Edwards, a sharpshooter with worsening glaucoma. Paco and Diego are two roughnecks from Mexico. A Pinkerton agent named Rawlings wants to go by the book. The bloodthirsty Midian Pierce is the interrogator. A pastor with an ugly eye for young girls, he is a malignant character out of a noir novel. Pierce’s ironic epithet is “the Sunday School Teacher.”

The gang is made up of handless Jim Shirley, whose assistive device that lets him shoot a colt is strapped to him by his partner Woman Watching (the nasty word “squaw” is tossed around a little too much in the exposition). The dumb thug Merle Buckner is oddly mentioned more often than his cousin the leader the gang, Race Buckner. Race is the smarter of the two; he recognizes that the 20th century is going to make little room for desperadoes like them. Estleman liked the theme The Passing of the West, a theme used by the better genre writers like Jack Shaefer and Elmer Kelton.

Like with his Page Murdock stories like Port Hazard and Stamping Ground, Estleman keeps his middle-aged male readers in mind by making the title character a fifty-year-old guy that is mighty tough in many ways, but losing the battle nobody wins against aging and ailing. The epithet for St. John is “The Old Lawman,” an appellation that brings to mind the repeated “old man” in The Old Man and The Sea.

For people who like to think a little when they read genre fiction, he includes enough details and background to make these stories like historical westerns, not only gun-play westerns. Estleman is also good with sensory details to describe smells, scenery, subtle sounds, and temperature.

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