Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: The Man Called Noon

© 1970 by Louis L’Amour

Formulaic but fun and fast

“Using his hands to feel for good grips, he worked his way up the steep incline. Once a stone rolled under him, and he glanced back. Fan was close behind him, and beyond her was the dark depth of the canyon.

“He started climbing once more. The top was such a few feet away, but the distance seemed enormous. He felt for another grip, hoisted the sack a bit to let it rest, then went on. The chute was even steeper than it had seemed. Perspiration was streaming down his face, down his ribs underneath his shirt, and his wounded shoulder was stiff. Gasping with effort, he paused again to rest for a moment. Glancing up, he could see the rim, now so close. If Niland and Janish found them now they could be shot like frogs in a tub.”

The Man Called Noon, chapter fifteen

But they were not shot like frogs in a tub.

What’s a good western without a Man With No Name? In this case, literally. Dude comes to after a fall from a two-story window, scrambling in the inky blackness of night, with no idea as to who he is or why they’re trying to kill him. Oh, he knows they’re trying to kill him all right. Blood pouring from a savage but superficial scalp wound, as well as a gunfighter’s sixth sense, tell him that.

Miraculously eluding the posse out to hunt him down, our nameless hero stumbles upon outlaw J.B. Rimes, who convinces him to head on over to the Rafter D Ranch. Seems like a couple gangs have been taking advantage of Fan Davidge, owner of said ranch after her pa was killed, as a crafty hide out between train robberies and such. Their leader is a nasty thug name of Ben Janish – a name our Man heard earlier whilst escaping with his life.

After piecing together a string of clues, our protagonist realizes he’s the feared hired gun called Ruble Noon. Seems he was hired to “take care of four men and a woman.” Could they be Ben Janish and his crew – and Fan Davidge? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe not exactly in the way Noon thinks. After all, he may not have any memory of his life prior to that fall out the window, but something deep inside tells him he ain’t no killer. Despite a lightning fast draw and a reputation for murder across the western plains.

It’s all there in this tale. El Paso. The Denver & Rio Grande railroad. The Ute Indian Trail. Wells Fargo, the Cherokee Nation, the Acme Saloon. $100,000 in treasure in the form of hidden gold. There’s a Pinkerton man undercover in the guise of one of the bandoleros at the ranch. A judge, Judge Niland in this case. Crooked lawyer Dean Cullane and his money-hungry sister, Peg. There’s even Wing the grumpy Chinese cook, who curses your appetite then overfeeds you with the best grub you’ll find west of the Mississippi.

Oh, and the names of the characters! The good guys are okay – Ruble Noon, Jonas Mandrin, Miguel Lebo, Fan Davidge, “Hen” Henneker, Arch Billings. But the bad guys! I love ’em, love the sound of ’em, can actually visualize killers with these names slow marching out of history with spurs in the mud down Main Street with hands twitching over holstered Colt 45s:

Ben Janish
Dave Cherry
John Lang
Finn Cagle
German Bayles
Mitt Ford
Lynch Manly (kicked out of the Canadian Mounties for too violent a temper)
Cristobal, the Mexican gunslinger
And various baddies mentioned only in passing: A. J. Fountain, Magoffin, and the Mannings (Peyton and Eli?)

This is the third Louis L’Amour western I’ve read, the other two being Hondo (1953) and The Lonely Men (1969). Yeah, it’s kinda the same-old same-old, but it works. It’s a fun, fast read, even though you kinda know what’s going to happen. The hero will dispatch the bad guys with ten pages to go, win the girl, and save the ranch.

But every now and then a L’Amour novel will throw me a curve ball. In this case, it was the very moving, sad, lonely existential one-page death of a minor henchman named Charlie in chapter thirteen. Ol’ Charlie thinks he can get the drop on Noon, and thinks he does, until he realizes he’s feeling a bit dizzy. Then something wet and warm under his shirt. Blood. Huh? From that small gunshot wound? Then the thirst comes on, then the confusion, and then Charlie drops to his knees, rolls over. He calls out to Janish and his men, knowing that even if they hear him they’ll leave him for dead. Dead? Is he really going to die? So young … then he imagines playing by the stream by his house as a youngling, ma coming by, finding him, she’d know what to do, she always did …

Took me two days to read the novel, and I recommend reading it – or any Louis L’Amour western  out of doors. In my case I read it on the banks of a lake in my town an hour or two each day. Bright sun, warm spring, and a simpler time, where one lived and died by the gun and one’s word.

Found out that The Man Called Noon was made into a forgettable spaghetti western in 1973. It stars a pre-Rambo’s-commanding-officer Richard Crenna as Noon (not one iota how I visualized the character) and Stephen Boyd as Rimes, whose most famous prior role was that of Messala, Charlton Heston’s friend-turned-foe in Ben Hur.

Grade: lighthearted A-minus.

PS. I also took a gander through L’Amour’s bibliography. Seems he wrote over a hundred westerns … and one Science Fiction novel! Hmm – interesting. And this morning, cruising the used book shelves at B&N with Little One during our errands, what do I find literally jumping out and into my arms? You guessed it. It’s now on the shelf behind me. Should get to it in eighteen or nineteen months or so …

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