I’m not the crime fiction expert in the household, so I feel free to wander way off that range and over the divide to this one. Having vicariously spent some of my summer with Billy Bonney, I’m easily reminded of the Kid as I read Reasoner’s sharply written noir story of a modern-day “kid” drawn not all that reluctantly into a career of crime.
I will throw Jim Thompson into the mix here, too. In particular his ethically challenged sheriffs of small Texas towns, like the one in Pop. 1280. And I’ll put on James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo” while we consider this whole phenomenon of the Old outlaw West still at large today.
Reasoner captures nicely the mentality of a young drifter, Toby, who has no attachment to his past and no apparent direction for the future. Arriving at a farm in West Texas, he takes a job as a hired hand for a middle-aged woman who lives there alone. Before long, he’s left his bed at night for hers. The sex is good and so is life.
Of course, this ends abruptly. Toby and the woman and her two dogs are soon fleeing the scene of a crime, leaving behind the bodies of two would-be killers and a cop. Toby starts out as an accomplice and, as the story swiftly progresses, gets drawn deeper and deeper into a murderous settling of scores among a nest of cold-blooded bank robbers.
That’s enough of the plot to get us going here. I won’t give away any more of the surprises and sudden twists and turns. There are plenty more in store for any reader who has the temerity to pick up this fast-moving thriller.
Billy. I think of Billy the Kid, because Toby is so much like him. They are both on their own in a world where circumstance and their inexperience and impulsiveness draw them further and further outside the law.
In each case, they attach themselves to someone who has enemies. For Billy, it was his boss John Tunstall, who found himself on the losing side of a feud with some nasty business rivals. The murder of Tunstall ignited the Lincoln County War, and Billy was then driven by a desire to revenge the death of his employer, who had taken him under his wing.
The law in each story is ineffectual, and outlaws roam pretty much at will. As in the history of that time, there is no particular honor among Reasoner’s thieves. The nail-biting edge of his novel derives in part from not knowing who to trust or who is telling the truth.
Told only from Toby’s point of view, Reasoner’s story gives us the most uninformed member of the entire crew of characters. We have to learn along with him, often wondering if we can rely on his judgment. It must have been like this for Billy, and anyone who rode with him, as he took one risk after another, not knowing when he was luck was going to run out.
Old West. Lest you think I’m stretching the comparison here, there are numerous allusions to the Old West in the later sections of the novel. Toby and his girlfriend Dana, on the run, head west across Texas, holing up in Pecos for a while (a stone’s throw from Clarence E. Mulford’s Bar-20 ranch). Instead of horses, they have the two dogs, Max and Clifford.
There’s a reference to Judge Roy Bean and to Robert Clay Allison, the man who “never killed a man that did not need killing.” (Allison got covered here a while ago.) And a couple scenes are played in a tourist attraction called the West of the Pecos Museum and Orient Saloon. Circumstances draw the characters even farther along to Fort Davis, with its Indian wars history and where there are still dirt streets.
So the Old West lives on in James Reasoner’s novel. Thieves abound and elude the law, and guns and bloodshed are the rule of the day. Only differences across the western landscape are the oil fields and the occasional Dairy Queen.
1) Book cover, jamesreasoner.net
2) James Reasoner, jamesreasoner.net
3) Billy the Kid, wikipedia.org
4) West of the Pecos Museum, texasescapes.com
Coming up: William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters (1911)