Throughout this blog’s history I have eagerly taken advantage of any opportunity to discuss Westerns. Although I’m miles from being an expert (my knowledge of the genre is superficial at best), I really do admire it and love watching old Westerns on TV, especially starring John Wayne. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my all-time favourite films. I highly enjoy Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range tales, and I love the two novels William DeAndrea lived to write about Lobo Blacke and Quinn Booker. But how else can I sneak a Western into a blog devoted primarily to mysteries?
Well, for the answer, I am thankful to TomCat of Detection by Moonlight. Ever since buying a copy of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Mysteries, he’s struggled to resist the urge to buy every book mentioned in that (extremely expensive!) volume. (I have countered as best as I can by getting the French equivalent, Chambres closes crimes impossibles—but only time will tell who will win this round.) And one of the books mentioned is Six Shooter Showdown by one William Colt MacDonald.
Six Shooter Showdown begins with ranch owner Alex Bishop making a hefty withdrawal of sorts—he is borrowing seven thousand dollars in gold from the bank, but since the bank hasn’t got that kind of cash lying around in the open, the banker asks his brother in the city to lend Bishop the money. Well, all goes smoothly—in fact, the lender, Gibson Haynes, is almost paranoid in the precautions he takes. He counts out the money himself, as does his secretary, as does Bishop. Then they roll it up into newspaper so it doesn’t clink and stuff it into a sack. Then, the sack is tied up and sealed with wax, with an imprint made by Bishop’s ring. From that moment on, the sack is never out of Bishop’s sight. On the train ride, he sits with his feet resting on the sack. So that by the time he reaches town, he’s got the same sack as he started off with.
Suddenly, gunshots sound! Some crazy hombre stages a hold-up, shooting Bishop twice in the arm and riding off with the sack of gold before being shot down by a witness, Matt Kaiser. He stumbles into an alleyway and dies there, with the sack of gold nearby. The sack is whisked off to the bank, where it is opened… and to the shock of everyone present, the sack hasn’t got gold anymore, but silver coins worth only a fraction of the original seven grand!
Enter Rainbow Rhodes and his trusty pard, Frosty Ferguson, who just happen to be riding by. Rainbow Rhodes is the Sherlock Holmes of the bunch, and I admire the way the Great Detective has been translated into a Westernised version through his character. He can be tough when he has to be (which happens fairly frequently). He can wisecrack with the best of ‘em, right alongside the likes of Archie Goodwin. He can handle a six-shooter and beat anybody in that noble pastime of chess.
The events onto which Rainbow and Frosty have stumbled are intriguing… but to be perfectly honest, the Western elements beat out the mystery elements any day. Let’s start with the good stuff: it’s a good story. There are plenty of villains, a lot of nasty characters and double-crossers who need to be taught a lesson. There’s nobody approaching the sheer memorability of the villain Liberty Valance, but then again, few villains do.
But the main reason the Western elements beat out the mystery elements is this: the mystery elements are terrible! The solution to the impossible substitution hasn’t got one ounce of inspiration behind it. It’s terribly mechanical and routine. The witnesses spend 200 pages saying “Goddamit man, I’m telling you all that I know!” before suddenly remembering “Hey, wait-a-minute, you’re right! I was forgetting something!” So you never get a chance to solve the “how” and “who” is obvious very early on. But not only is the solution unfair, it’s uninspired. There’s no cleverness behind this trick. It’s dull, dull, dull, and the two false solutions I came up with on my own time are far better than any solution, real or false, proposed by the author.
Although I don’t regret reading this book, I’m glad I read it via Interlibrary Loan, because I think I would have regretted purchasing it. It’s a solid and enjoyable Western, though apart from its interpretation of a Westernised Great Detective there’s little in it to make it truly memorable. With a decent mystery, it would have simply been an average story. But because the mystery is not very good or inspired, the overall quality of this book seems to me slightly sub-par. It’s not like there’s anything morally objectionable to the book, but there are definitely far better ones to read out there.