Thursday, July 26, 2018

'Men like Jack Masters still lived, but there were not very many of them.'

Day Keene is one of the major writers of hard-boiled or noirish paperback original novels in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, he had a substantial background in the detective pulps, including the legendary Black Mask in its waning days. He wasn't much of a western writer until late in his pulp career. He published something in the January 1941 Star Western and didn't return to the genre, to judge from titles, until 1948. From then until 1951 Keene published with some frequency in Popular Publications' western titles, mostly in Fifteen Western Tales. "Hang the Man High!" (January 1949) seems partly inspired by The Ox-Bow Incident in its focus on the buildup to the lynching of some cattle rustlers. Unlike in that novel, the three in this story -- an old man, a young man, and a Mexican -- are guilty, but there's more to them, or at least to their ringleader, than their crime. Unfortunately, once one of the would-be lynchers idly lets the name of Jack Masters drop in conversation, and the narrative segues into an account of Masters' legendary exploits, Keene pretty much telegraphs that the taciturn oldster waiting to be hanged is the idolized Masters fallen on hard times. He manages to maintain an emotional suspense as Masters' angry son warns him constantly against revealing his identity, until the boy finally yells the truth at the obtuse lynchers. Alas, either Keene or his editor felt the story needed a happy ending, so a test of marksmanship is made so Masters can prove his identity, since "shooting is like riding a horse. If a man can, he can." And once his identity is proven, one of the lynchers, an especially good sport, recalls that his father cheated Masters out of a herd of cattle in a card game. As far as this worthy is concerned, that makes the rustled cattle rightfully the rustlers'. Isn't that nice? There's enough in this eight-page story to verify that Keene is a good writer of dialogue, at least, but the main impression the tale makes is of a writer paying his bills by giving a genre audience the sort of gimmicky stuff they presumably wanted.

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