Thursday, November 21, 2013

John Reese, Texas Gold (1975)

This novel gave me a case of déjà vu. It’s almost a mix of two other novels I read recently. Take Larry Sweazy’s Austin, Texas, from The Coyote Tracker and add to it the central characters and a nasty villain from James Best’s The Return. You get something a lot like Reese’s novel about a private detective after an international counterfeiter.

Plot. This was one of ten Reese novels featuring detective Jefferson Hewitt, who is one of a pair of partners running a bonding and indemnity company based in Cheyenne. Hewitt does all the legwork while his partner, Conrad Meuse (whom we never meet), runs the bonding end of the business. They communicate by telegrams so cryptically worded you’re hardly able to make sense of them.

The plot is complicated and not easily summed up in a few words. The villain, a Fantômas-style count from some East European backwater, has dreamed up a scheme to throw the world’s monetary systems into chaos. He is threatening to swamp them with a truckload of phony $50 gold pieces, taking down governments along with their currencies.

Austin, Texas, c1885
When the pieces start showing up and a man is killed over them, Hewitt gets interested. He guesses that someone somewhere has been stung by the counterfeiter and needs help that he’s willing to pay good money for. Tracing the fake coins to a rancher and his son outside San Antonio, Hewitt begins putting the clues together.

His path quickly crosses that of three other investigators, all of them converging in Austin, and each of them, as it turns out, on the trail of the same counterfeiter. The four join up—but only after Hewitt gets a promise of $30,000 from the Treasury Department if he can deliver the crook, the fake coins, and the die used to create them.

Gold Eagle
One of the investigators is a woman, Mrs. Chaney, the bored widow of a Texas rancher. She’s an amateur, but Hewitt thinks she has promise, and the two become a duo. Reluctantly working with them is a railroad detective, Tommy Quillen, and Dennis McGucken of the Treasury Department.

Character. Hewitt is a curious creation, not exactly a warmly congenial man. At one time a Pinkerton detective, he’s now self-employed and always calculating the profitability of the cases he takes on. He is adept at sizing up people and situations, drives a hard bargain, and has killed four men in his line of work.

He thinks of criminals as having one basic weakness. They break the law because they don’t believe they can compete honestly with people who play by the rules. A crook may act like a genius or a mastermind, but mostly it’s bluff—and a big ego. As clever and dangerous as the count behaves, Hewitt knows he can outsmart the man. Of course, Hewitt is plenty of bluff and well-fed ego himself.

Described as “sure of himself, personable, convincing,” he’s also a masseur, a graphic artist, a master of regional accents and a few foreign languages, and likes to gamble at cards for high stakes. He’s unmarried.

Mrs. Chaney is steely and fearless, hired first by Quillen to spy on Hewitt, who immediately suspects her and tricks her into blowing her own cover. She sees that he’s far more clever and seasoned and wants him for a mentor. Then she falls for him, and by novel’s end, the two have worked out an arrangement that might well be called friends with benefits.

John Reese
Wrapping up. Reese generally plays ironically with western conventions in his novels. Much of this novel, however, is played as straight crime detection. His detective hero could well be influenced by the PIs of hard-boiled fiction. He’s coolly intelligent, unsentimental, and not in the market for a long-term relationship.

And he’s not motivated by altruism or high moral purpose. He would prevent, if he could, the collapse of U.S. currency, but what he mostly cares about is his own money. During the investigation, he worries that it won’t turn out to be worth the time and expense, and in the end, he has to get rough with a client who tries to squid out of paying his fee. But when all is said and done, Hewitt and his partners make out pretty well. And that’s good enough.

Texas Gold is currently available in hardcover and paperback at AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.

Further reading:
BITS reviews of other John Reese novels:

Photo credits:
Author’s photo,
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction


  1. Read this just a few months ago, enjoyed it.

  2. The Pinkertons surely provide lots of fodder for characters and story ideas. I used one myself.

    1. The Pinkertons are sort of the Old West version of the FBI. They can show up on either side of the plot in a novel.