Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)

This is the third novel in Oliver Strange's great series of westerns about James Green, also known as Sudden. I'm talking about the reading sequence, which is different from the dates of composition and publication *NOTE 1. 

The Marshal of Lawless finds Sudden in the south of Arizona, near to the border with Mexico. Race plays quite an important role in the plot; in romances of this era, it is an irresistible ingredient, colourful in every sense; behind the racist story-lines, both author and readers are secretly attracted to what repels them. One of the villains is a Mexican (Moraga, the self-styled El Diablo), and the other - the principal one - is half-Commanche (Seth Raven, popularly known as The Vulture). On the other hand, the “injun” Black Feather, whom Sudden recues from being tortured by El Diablo, is devoted and honourable. El Diablo is naturally humiliated when Sudden invites Black Feather to give the Mexican a whipping in return. That overturns the natural order of things, from El Diablo's point of view. From Sudden's point of view Mexicans are far worse than Red Indians, inasmuch as they have pretensions to be white men. Worst of all, however, is miscegenation. Meeting Raven for the first time, Sudden runs an expert eye over his features:

"Injun an' Mex or bad white, like Durley said, reg'lar devil's brew," was Green's unvoiced criticism.

The book, naturally, supports the hero's view. We instantly scent villainous qualities in "the hooked nose, small, close-set eyes, thin lips, and lank, black hair". Yet though Sudden's race analysis is skilled, he is too honorable a man to condemn on racist grounds alone. Several chapters later, Seth Raven still puzzles him;

Apparently a public-spirited citizen..... With an innate feeling that the man was crooked, he had to admit that so far he was not justified in that belief.

When El Diablo accosts the beautiful Tonia Sarel, she treats with contempt his claim to be a caballero of Old Spain: "Lay a finger on me, you yellow dog, and I'll thrash you." However, when Sudden has rescued her, the following dialogue takes place:

"Ride on a piece, Miss Sarel," he said. "I'll be along."

She divined the menace beneath the casual request. "What are you going to do?" she questioned.

"Kill a snake," he said coolly.

"No, no," she protested. "He's a Mexican and didn't understand. Please let him go."

At one level the book shows Tonia's cultural relativism to be mistaken - she is just being squeamish; Sudden yields against his own better judgment and El Diablo comes back to haunt both of them. But at a poetic level she's of course right. Though by then Sudden has equal motive for revenge, it's Black Feather who finally salves his honour by doing for El Diablo; Sudden merely puts the bandit out of his misery when impaled screaming on a clump of cactus half-way down a cliff. We understand that though it is honourable for Black Feather to exact revenge for personal injury, it would not be honourable for Sudden to do the same. Because he is the hero? Or because he is white? Racism and romance are so intertwined that it's hard to decide. Seth Raven has already called this one. El Diablo being now in his bad books, Raven instructs the marshal as he sets off with the posse: "An' don't make no mistake this time. If yu don't wanta kill the damn yellow thief yoreself, let yore Injun do it." With the implication: make sure it's painful.

But I don't know as much as I should about the history of race stereotypes in early Westerns. In Oliver Strange, an English author, they seem to me to have a contemporary British character. Savage races are to some extent "let off" because of the prevalent idea of the noble savage. On the other hand the most venomous racism is reserved for the dubious category of "dirty whites", especially (for some reason) "Portugooses", who are made scapegoats for all the brutalities of colonialism, which is to be airbrushed from the fine features of the British Empire and its agents. In an American context, Strange simply transfers that venom to the Mexicans.

The roots of the fear of miscegenation lie deeper, in folk-myths designed by elders to control the too-miscellaneous breeding tendencies of their juniors. Propaganda against mixed breeding goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks with their disapproval of the foreigner and their mythical monsters (nearly always malign) produced by unlikely cross-breeding of species.   

A surprising thing happens when Seth Raven, the town's most prominent citizen, is finally cornered, his crimes made public beyond dispute. Perhaps not so surprising - the Merchant of Venice lies behind this quasi-courtroom scene. Anyway, the "half-breed" (sometimes referred to, even more contemptuously, as the "breed") finds this to say:

"Yo're a clever lot, ain't yu?" he sneered. "Superior race, salt o' the earth - scum would fit yu better. Me, I'm what yu called me. The Vulture, that damned Injun, the unwanted brat of a pore white an' his copper-coloured squaw, yet I've beaten an' fooled yu all - killed, robbed, an' had yu pattin' me on the back for a good fella. Bite on that! Why, if it hadn't bin for a stranger" - his gaze rested viciously on Green - "yu'd be eatin' outa my hand this minit like the dawgs yu are. Which of yu has the pluck an' savvy to plan an' do as I did? Not one o' yu."

The stinging, scornful voice lashed them like a whip and he had his moment.

The book is of course sunnily untroubled by the implications of Raven's speech; as are its audience, who (after the ensuing shoot-out) forget all about it. For them, the racist context in which Raven became the villain that society already marked him down as, is invisible.    

"Well, he's saved thisyer town the cost of a rope," Loder put in.

Which was the best that anyone could find to say of the late owner of the Red Ace.

But for Strange it is clear that racism, as well as races, is picturesque: it is itself a colourful ingredient of the tapestry that makes heroes and villains. (Sudden himself had been raised as a child by Paiutes.)  

I now find the villains in these novels interesting and surprisingly varied: consider for instance the extremely conflicted, sometimes lucid, intelligent, ineffectual and eventually crazed Paul Lesurge of Sudden - Gold Seeker. But when I read these books as a child I didn't pay much attention to the villains: it was the magnificent hero who dominated my imagination, on his splendid black horse (I wasn't going to make a big deal of this, but the horse's name is Nigger *NOTE 3). Sudden, who gains the respect and affection of straight men, the respect and hatred of crooked ones; Sudden, who makes bantering jokes with the younger pal who invariably hero-worships him and at some point awkwardly blurts out his affection for Jim after the latter has returned from some near-death scrape; Sudden, unafraid of confrontation, always quickest on the draw (only Wild Bill Hickock ever matches him, but that's just a friendly trial), self-assured and decisive in the wilds, a brilliant tracker and seeker-out of clues, stoically philosophical in adversity, modestly embarrassed by the rich stores of praise that are showered on him by those who matter, modestly resistant to the darkness of an undeserved reputation as an outlaw, unobtrusively driven by a private quest and deeper feelings than those around him. To aspire to be Sudden, I understood, did not have to mean being a gunslinger.

Strange's strengths as a writer are crackling dialogue, lean and expert construction, a wide and curious vocabulary (George Eliot lies behind some of it, such as "anent"), and a descriptive power less opulent than Zane Grey's but more focussed on the needs of a pacy story. Here Sudden and his sidekick Barsay have hooked up with Andy Bordene's cattle drive, pitching camp in The Pocket under a threatening sky:

Arrangements for the night were well forward when they reached the camping-place, which they did at leisure. The herd had been watered and now, under the ministrations of half a dozen circling riders, was quietly settling down at the far end of the valley. At the near end the cook had a big fire going and the busy rattle of pots and pans sent a cheerful message to tired and hungry men. Having given their mounts a drink, and picketed them, without removing the saddles, the visitors joined the loungers by the fireside.

The customary baiting of the cook was proceeding in a promising manner when a distant rumble of thunder put a sudden end to it. Anxious eyes turned skywards, where an inky, rolling mass of cloud was wiping out the stars in a steady advance. Then came a spot or two of rain.

"She's a-comin', boys, shore as shootin'," Andy said. "Better be ready for anythin' that breaks loose."

Scrambling hurriedly to their feet, the men donned slickers...



In the reading sequence, which is not the sequence of publication, The Marshal of Lawless is preceded by Sudden - Outlawed (in which the youthful hero first takes an oath to seek revenge on the killers of his father, and gains his monicker), and also by Sudden (in which he is secretly employed by Governor Bleke as an agent for the forces of law and order).

These background matters remain constant in the novels that follow. Strange follows the plan of Spenser's Faerie Queene, with Sudden/Jim Green as Prince Arthur: actively involved in the free-standing adventure of each book but not (formally) its hero. It's Sudden's junior comrade who has the life-adventure, conquers his sea of troubles and winds up marrying the girl. Sudden rides off into the sunset, still intent on his larger quest.

That quest culminates, we are promised, in The Range Robbers. However, readers who patiently follow the saga through will perhaps feel a little disappointed. The Range Robbers  was actually the first book Strange wrote, when already approaching retirement: he was an employee of the publishers, George Newnes, Ltd and he lived in Kew. It was an unexpected hit and he was urged to write some more westerns; however, it  was only after one sequel and a couple of prequels that the epic possibilities of Sudden's quest really came into focus, in the stand-out novels (Outlawed, Gold Seeker, Trail...) that followed.

The Range Robbers is an excellent, spacious novel in its own right, with a populous cast of characters and some freewheeling, memorable scenes. And Strange had already worked out the back story in considerable detail: Sudden’s past, including the revenge quest; his secret employment by Governor Bleke; his mysterious origins. One of the two men he has implacably sought turns out to be his true father: The Range Robbers culminates in a double lost-heir revelation. (When this is finally revealed by a locket that Sudden has worn since he was an infant, it’s one of the many places where we’re incongruously struck by how deep the roots of Strange’s books lie in European literature and in Shakespeare.) Nevertheless, this keystone book, having been written before the rest of the series, feels slightly at odds with it. We note the absence of Sudden’s black horse (he has two different horses in The Range Robbers, both rather memorable). He seems here to have never panned for gold before,  though this had played a large part in Sudden – Gold Seeker. We are still more surprised to read that Sudden’s quest has lasted only three years; in the novels written later, Strange depicts Sudden growing from a youth into a mature man with grey streaks in his hair – it feels more like ten years. Neither the villainous Webb nor the unexpectedly innocent Peterson have quite the epic stature that they gradually assume in our minds as we read through the complete saga. This Sudden (he gives his name as Green, but doesn’t mention the name Jim) is imagined as young, if not quite as boyish as his sidekick Larry Barton, whose role in the love story he usurps. He is less sure-footed than the Sudden of the later books and makes more mistakes.

(In that early sequel The Law o’ The Lariat, exceptionally, the hero takes the name Jim Severn, in secret allusion to the author's origins: he was born in Worcester in 1871. Likewise, the girl that he marries in The Range Robbers is called Noreen in allusion to Strange's wife Nora). 

The books used to be readily available online but on a "suddenseries" site but this has now been blocked. Most other outlets demand some sort of payment. I've found a few good sources that don't require payment (links below). The texts are readable, though there are quite a few errors.

The Range Robbers (1930) Reading Sequence: 9
The Law O' The Lariat (1931) Reading Sequence: 10
Sudden (1933) Reading Sequence: 2
The Marshal of Lawless  (1933) Reading Sequence: 3  Online text: (text on screen)
Sudden - Outlawed (1935) Reading Sequence: 1
Sudden - Goldseeker (1937) Reading Sequence: 4 (PDF download)
Sudden Rides Again (1938) Reading Sequence: 5
Sudden Takes the Trail (1940) Reading Sequence: 6 (PDF download)
Sudden Makes War (1942) Reading Sequence: 7
Sudden Plays a Hand (1950) Reading Sequence: 8

Oliver Strange never visited America, though his books were as successful there as they were in Britain. Some years after his death Frederick Nolan (born in Liverpool in 1931) produced five more Sudden books under the pen-name of Frederick H. Christian. Nolan has gone on to write some 70 books in various genres and under various names. He was also an editor of Corgi books, who republished the original Sudden novels; these later reprints, Nolan tells us, were slightly abridged in deference to "the 160-page rule".  So while my Corgi copy of The Marshal of Lawless is 157 pages, the Geo Newnes volumes that I have are all about 250 pages (though there's slightly less text per page). Typically it amounts to about a 20% reduction, I'd estimate.   


Sudden - Outlawed is among other things an account of an eventually successful cattle drive along (or slightly off) the Chisholm Trail. It has so much in common with Borden Chase's Red River that either it must be a source or else there's a common source. But if you didn't know the dates of publication, you'd probably suppose Red River to be the earlier one, because of its self-conscious primitivism. This is possibly the most elaborate Sudden novel; quite a lot of research has gone into it. Notable for the figure of Tyson, a "still-hunter" or Indian-killer; a friendly character that the novel is nevertheless unable to quite accept.


This wasn't an unusual name to give to animals. On the Terra Nova, the ship that was supposed to pick up Captain Scott in 1913, the black cat was called Nigger. I have been told about someone's neighbour's dog being called Nigger in the late 1950s. 



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