Thursday, December 5, 2013

Max Brand, Destry Rides Again (1930)

1930 edition
This is my new favorite Max Brand novel. Neatly plotted and briskly told, it illustrates Brand’s remarkable gift for storytelling. It begins with the usual western conventions and then quickly posits a premise that strikes off in one unexpected direction after another. Maybe most remarkably, it defies convention by presenting an indomitable but flawed hero whose estimation of himself is mightily revised by the end of the novel.

His first flaw is a nearly fatal blind spot in his choice of friends. The second is his unshaken belief in his superiority to all other men. His becomes a soul-purging lesson in humility and brotherly love.

Plot. Forget the plot of the movie. At nearest, Destry Rides Again (1939) is a sequel to Brand’s novel, with James Stewart as a lawman who has given up the use of a gun. The idea may have been sparked by the final sentence of the novel:

But, as Ding Slater said, the whole county should have been present, because it meant the end of the old days and the beginning of a new regime in Wham, for Harrison Destry had put away his Colt.

There’s no evidence that the screenwriters had read any of the preceding pages.

2009 edition
Character. Max Brand’s Destry is a man that other men live in fear of. He is tougher and stronger and faster with a gun, and he knows it. When a train is robbed of $72,000, the crime is wrongly pinned on him, and a jury of his peers, tired of his bullying, happily finds him guilty.

Released after serving six years of a ten-year sentence, Destry determines to take vengeance on each of the 12 men who put him away. Two he kills in self-defense, and the rest live in terror or flee for their lives. Meanwhile, he is unaware that the true villain is a man he believes to be his best friend, Chet Bent.

By the end of the novel, only four jurymen are left, but Destry has learned the error of trusting the murderous Bent. A boy, Willie Thornton, has been witness to Bent’s skullduggery and gets word of it to Destry, who then confronts the villain. The final chapters are a revelation of self-knowledge that throws Destry into an identity crisis. At the end, marriage to a long-time sweetheart marks the start of a whole new life.

1959 edition
Spoilers. I’ve been told that my reviews have spoilers, and if anyone thinks this plot summary spoils the novel for them, I can promise that it barely skims the surface. It reveals maybe 10% of the novel’s twists and turns, the surprises and suspenseful scenes, the well-drawn cast of characters, and the drama.

The pleasure in a well-told western is in the gifts of the storyteller. Brand is just so good at what he does. Writers who attempt to imitate him have picked a master of the genre to learn from. But matching him requires a mix of intelligence, inventiveness, sentiment, risking-taking, and a sense of humor that even a competent writer can fall short of achieving. A Brand novel is not just about plot.

To pick just one of many examples, I was struck by this riff on the death of a man who had attempted to bushwhack Destry:

Only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear. Hank Cleeves was ended, and his long fingers and his hairy hands would never again do wonders with hammer and chisel, with saw, and wrench. The boys would no longer stand around and admire the mechanic. They would no longer yearn to grow up to such a man. The chips would no longer fly, or the nails sink home for Hank Cleeves, nor the rafters ring under his hammer.

1974 edition
And that’s just an excerpt from a longer sequence. Another writer might dismiss Hank Cleeves’ death as good riddance of a bad man. For Destry, it’s recognition of the dead man’s humanity and of the loss of a life. It’s an admission that every act has consequences, which the western often fails to acknowledge.

The novel is also about hero worship. In the character of the boy Willie Thornton, it presents an exaggerated version of readers who revere their western heroes as superhuman and without fault. Boys, of course, need role models, but what Billie admires in Destry—his invincibility—is open to question.

Brand’s experiments thinking out of the box don’t always work. But there’s hardly a false note in this novel. He gets you suspending disbelief in ways you don’t expect. His stock characters are often pushing themselves into three dimensions. In the case of Destry himself, we get a basically decent and nonviolent man who does not realize he has also bullied others all his life.

1943 edition
Wrapping up. This is a genuinely entertaining novel that deserves to be read by both readers and writers of westerns. It takes a revenge plot, and when you expect it to be about the serial killing of twelve angry men, it turns itself into another kind of story entirely—not once but a couple of times. Meanwhile, its central character is a stock western hero, quick with his fists and a gun, who learns that he’s less of a man than he thought.

Destry Rides Again has been frequently reprinted and must be one of Brand’s most popular titles. Amazon lists a printing history covering 55 editions and formats, and it remains in print today. It is currently available in paper, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell’s Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.

Further reading:
BITS reviews of other Max Brand novels:

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction


  1. I have almost all of the Max Brand issues of WESTERN STORY and I see that I read this novel a long time ago. It originally appeared in 1930 as a serial under the title, TWELVE PEERS.

    I've seen all three of the film adaptations and enjoyed them all:

    1932--Tom Mix
    1939--James Stewart
    1954--Audie Murphy

    I've had a love/hate affair going on now for 50 years with Max Brand. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that I find his work either good, mediocre, or poor, since he wrote his novels at an incredible speed. Just when I'm ready to give up on him, I read one of his novels that I think was well done.

    I used to know over a dozen old time Max Brand collectors who would bind the pulps and rave about the hardcovers, etc. Now they are almost all dead except for a couple pals feebly still gathering old issues of WESTERN STORY and ARGOSY.

    1. I enjoy finding the good ones and don't give too much thought to the rest. I'd like to see the Tom Mix version of the story.

  2. Thank you for this discerning review of a fine novel. Frederick Faust, Max Brand, died of a shrapnel wound in Italy in 1944. He was a war correspondent, following the troops, even deep into middle age.

    1. I believe he had been living in Europe and would have had good reason to take the war personally. I would be interested in reading his dispatches from the front.

  3. Tom Mix Died for my Sins and I know it. Always knew it because I start the morning with Hot Ralston. The breakfast cereal that can't be beat.

  4. Thank you, Ron, for this review. I read the book long ago and forgot about it. I'll look it up again and read it.

    Far from spoiling my desire to read the book, your review has caused me to want to read it. It sounds like a much better novel than I remembered.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Carol. There was a time when I may not have liked this novel as much, but one learns to appreciate the magic that some writers manage to create with the conventions.

  5. Ron, I've not noticed spoilers in your reviews. There are so many diverse elements in a western novel that one cannot really cover it all in the space of a few paragraphs. I find it a challenge to review a western, or even write about it. The "twists and turns," as you note, are many. I have not read a Max Brand novel in a long time and I feel like like reading some now. I have a few of his used paperbacks. It's interesting how fairly common the words "Rides Again" and even "Rides Alone" are in western titles.

    1. Story elements in western fiction are often so similar. It's the way the story is told that makes it enjoyable. And titles are funny. They rarely reflect the content of a western novel, though in this case, it's actually a good fit.

  6. Nicely put. Thanks. A Brand story often has several surprises. Breaking with convention is one way of doing that.