Thursday, December 2, 2010

Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith (1906)

Born in Buffalo, NY, Frank H. Spearman (1859-1937) first tried his luck managing a bank in McCook, Nebraska. In those days of boom and bust economy, the bank failed to survive a bust. After that, his life was divided between business interests in Omaha and Wheaton, Illinois.

At the age of 40 he began a writing career, with a special interest in railroads. By 1906, he’d already published numerous stories and articles and a serialized novel in The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. Whispering Smith was his first best seller.

Smith is a railroad detective working the Rocky Mountain lines of Wyoming. His job is something like Tom Horn’s was for the cattlemen’s association. He hunts down and brings in any outlaws cutting into the company’s profits – which includes train robbers and anyone disrupting business or willfully damaging company property. If they resist arrest, he has license to kill.

Because he is lightning fast with a gun, he has a reputation that gives your average lawbreaker an instant case of fear and trembling. He’s also in possession of superior intelligence and razor sharp judgment. Add to that his generous and winning ways with both friends and the ladies, and you have the kind of man every grown man wishes he could be.

J. P. McGowan, Whispering Smith, 1916
He got his nickname as a boy, when bouts of laryngitis reduced his voice to a whisper. But it suits him as a man with a dangerous job who brings an enviably deft touch to whatever he does.

Whispering Smith is a wonderfully complex creation. While apparently fearless, he knows he has enemies and is aware that his life may be cut short at any moment. Spearman hints that he is a lonely man whose chief compensation is knowing that he does his work well. Meanwhile, he is conscious of its moral ambiguity. He is, after all, a hired gunman, serving the interests of a railway tycoon.

The plot. There’s a kind of tongue-in-cheek irony in the way the story opens and unfolds. We first meet the villain, Sinclair, a man who also does his job well. He’s a train wreck boss, supervising a hard-working crew that clears up after derailments. Turns out he and his men are also looting from the freight shipments. A new young supervisor, McCloud, stops him in the act and fires him.

This sets in motion a sequence of crimes against company employees and property – an engineer is killed during a holdup and a railroad bridge is burned. Sinclair is suspected. Enter, after several chapters, our man Smith.

Railroad, Platte Canyon, Wyoming, 1923
Finding and bringing in the criminals is complicated by the fact that the mountains are a lawless territory infested with outlaws. Most are two-bit renegades without the cunning or intelligence to be more than a middling menace. A few are malicious killers, chief among them an albino named Du Sang.

While McCloud lives as a man marked for murder by a vengeful and unforgiving Sinclair, he bravely goes about his business. This includes laying track for a new railway through the mountains, rebuilding that burned bridge, and coming to the aid of a rancher during a flood.

Whispering Smith is on the trail of Du Sang. The novel would not end well if he didn’t get his man. And I’ll only say that after a confrontation meant to raise the hair on the back of your neck, he eventually does. Sinclair gets what’s coming to him, too.


Romance. Almost half of the novel involves two women I haven’t mentioned yet. One is Marion, a married woman who has left her husband and is living an independent life as a milliner. Her income is supplemented by taking in a boarder. That boarder happens to be the young McCloud.

Her husband is none other than the villain Sinclair, an abusive man who still wants her back. Meanwhile, the one who truly and deeply loves her is Whispering Smith. The Sinclairs and Smith, in fact, have a long history, growing up as children together in a small town in Wisconsin before coming West.

Dicksie and McCloud, by N. C. Wyeth
Thus, all three men at the center of the main story are involved in one way or another with Marion. Still, though yet in her twenties, she’s determined to go it alone in life. It’s a commendable goal but not too promising, were it not for Smith who looks after her as much as she’ll let him. His unrequited love adds another layer of poignance to Smith’s character. It also adds an element of urgency, as Sinclair becomes increasingly desperate and dangerous.

Like a juggler, Spearman inserts yet another key character into all this – a second young woman by the name of Dicksie. It’s love at first sight when McCloud meets her. Dicksie, who has lost both parents, is spirited and even more fiercely independent than Marion. She has grown up on the ranch that once belonged to her parents and is a tireless horsewoman.

What she eventually discovers is that she’s also a poor judge of character. Admiring Sinclair and disliking McCloud, she learns that each is not what she had thought. Realizing that Sinclair is a threat to her friend Marion, she risks her life in a headlong ride through a snowstorm to come to Marion’s aid. And when McCloud finally dares to speak his love, she allows herself to be won over.

Whispering Smith fires, by N. C. Wyeth
Wrapping up. There’s lots more, but I’ll stop here. Whispering Smith is basically a western novel with trains. Its heroes are men in the service of law, order, and industry in the untamed boundary land of the frontier. There are cattle ranches, rustlers, and gunmen, and the action is set against a mountainous wilderness, source of sometimes overwhelming forces of nature.

It’s a man’s world where a few good men put their lives on the line to take a stand against lawlessness. Living among them are a few women, who are capable, principled, and strong-willed. While a man does what he has to do, there is room in his heart to yearn for the love of one of them. And so the story acknowledges the emotional life of its readers, for whom there is much to identify with.

By 1915, Spearman was living in Hollywood, his fiction having found its way to the silver screen. Fifteen of his stories were adapted to film during his lifetime. Whispering Smith was made into a movie three times, with two silent productions in 1916 and 1926 and a sound version in 1948 featuring Alan Ladd. In 1961 it became a TV series that ran for 20 episodes starring Audie Murphy and with Guy Mitchell in a supporting role.

Further reading:

Picture credits: 
Book cover, ioffer.com
J. P. McGowan, gutenberg.org
N. C. Wyeth illustrations, gutenberg.org
Railroad photo, wikimedia.org

Coming up: another 3-minute western

7 comments:

  1. Does the name Spearman ring any recent bells? "Open Range!"

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  2. Spearman was another good writer and he also appeared in POPULAR MAGAZINE. I've read a few of his stories including some interesting railroad fiction.

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  3. I enjoyed the book and the Ladd film. Well worth the read or flick.

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  4. Saw the movie a long time ago and didn't remember what it was about. Thanks for the review.

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  5. Cheyenne, you're right. I missed that. Robert Duvall's character in that Kevin Costner western - and one of my favorites.

    Walker, I'm looking forward to reading more.

    David, I've got the movie coming from netflix.

    Oscar, thanks for coming by.

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  6. "a lonely man whose chief compensation is knowing that he does his work well."

    I like that line!

    Interesting review... I have a collection of Railroad Magazines from 1946-1948--there are some interesting stories in them (most with way too many adjectives), but interesting in the transition that was going on then from steam to desiel.

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