Thursday, September 5, 2013

John Reese, Rich Man’s Range (1966)

This is an old story that is often retold in westerns. Like Odysseus of old, a man returns home after many years of wandering. There he finds his house in disorder, and heads must roll before he can be reunited with the woman he once left behind. Reese may or may not have had The Odyssey in mind when he wrote this novel, but the parallels are many, and he’s given them a sly twist or two.

Plot. After an eight-year absence, George Merrit finds his way back to Strickland, Texas, where he has inherited half a 40,000-acre ranch. The other half has been willed to the widow of the previous owner. A high-strung woman, Bonnie Keller has never forgotten her humble origins as the daughter of “movers,” whose gypsy habits once branded her as white trash. Before marrying the now-dead rancher, she was also at one time Merrit’s lover.

Like Penelope in Homer’s epic poem, Bonnie has her suitors. One of them is the psychopathic manager of a neighboring ranch, Aaron Davidson, who wants to get his hands on her property. Seems her ranch is about to jump in value as a new railroad is being built across it, and he needs money to pay off an embarrassing debt.

In Homer’s version, Odysseus enlists the assistance of his now-grown son, Telemachus, to help retake possession of his home. The hero in Reese’s novel discovers only after his return that he has a son, a boy who unfortunately died in infancy. To take on Davidson, Merrit gets help from another suitor instead, a lawyer named Newton Price, who quotes Shakespeare and is rarely sober.

Also coming to his aid are the ranch’s cowhands, three amigos from his years as a gold miner in Sonora, and several Mexicans, who turn out to have an agenda of their own. On Merrit’s behalf, Price brings a suit against Davidson for conspiracy to defraud. And for a while the story turns into a bracing courtroom drama enlivened with charges made by the battered madam of the local whorehouse.

Roundup camp, Texas, 1900
A great deal happens in this short, tightly plotted novel. Readers who like action are treated to fisticuffs and gunplay, with more than a few casualties. Hostilities escalate until the villainous Davidson mounts a full-scale attack on the ranch and is finally captured and rendered quite dead by Merrit’s hired Mexicans.

Style. I would call this an adult western, and not just because of the whores and mention of venereal disease (referred to as being “laid up”). The stormy relationship between Merrit and the widow is fraught with recriminations, sarcasm, tears, and racy sexual undercurrents. When the two have a scene together, the soapy dialogue gets pretty trashy as injured pride reaches for all the clichéd accusations and rejoinders. Matters may even get physical, and not in a nice way.

But when Reese is not knee-deep in the battle of the sexes, the writing is sharp and original, often salty. Here the narrator sums up Bonnie’s family background:

The riffraff she was born into called themselves horse-traders, but anything they had that was worth trading was stolen. Their men were deadbeats, thieves, so lazy they stank.

The story moves forward at a brisk pace. The first chapter is breathlessly packed with character and incident as exposition is deftly woven into the narrative. Throughout the novel, there are mysteries about the past that are revealed without warning. You have to pay close attention or the details can slip by you.

In a curious motif, Merrit has been shot through his upper thigh, even before the novel’s opening, and he is often pulling down his pants to inspect the slowly healing wound. There are surprising social observations as when we’re told that cowhands have “a lonely man’s bad judgment about women.” They’ll fall in love with a whore and remain devoted to a lady boss, harboring fantasies of one day marrying her.

John Reese
Reese’s later novels show a delight in ironies and overturning conventions. We see some of that here in the appearance of an outspoken minister who speaks out against the villains when most of the town will not even show up for the funeral of a murdered citizen. The trial judge and the sheriff who give all appearance of being useless obstacles to justice surprise Merrit by their mettle.

Wrapping up. This is an enjoyable western story, having fun as it does with the standard conventions and pushing limits with the temperature of its sexual politics. The intensity of Merrit’s confrontations with the women in his life parallels the novel’s abrupt bursts of violence and the brutality of the deaths he witnesses. In later novels, Reese would break up the point of view so that a story is told through the eyes and ears of several members of a community rather than a single protagonist at the center.

Rich Man’s Range is currently available at AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Further reading:
BITS reviews of other John Reese novels
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo, goodreads

Coming up: Horace Annesley Vachell, Bunch Grass (1912)


  1. Don't think I've ever read anything by him. Not sure how I've missed his work.

  2. I see John Reese as another example of the writers who had to adapt to the changing markets. In the 1940's he had his pulp career, then when they died he broke into the higher paying slick market, especially THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. But then by 1962 the slick fiction market was dying and he started writing original paperback fiction.

    And as you point out, his fiction was usually of interest and enjoyable.

  3. His photograph reflects his sense of humor with that smile on his face.