----

----
Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

January 17, 2014

The Renos by Wolf Lundgren, 1999

This fine western is my first book review of the year, posted for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

They planned to do what no man had done before, the hold-up and robbery of a railroad locomotive, the Ohio and Mississippi Flyer. They were going to make history.

My copy of the book
If you want to read a gripping fictional account of the real-life story of the Reno Brothers, who robbed the first train shortly after the Civil War, then The Renos by Wolf Lundgren (1999) is the book for you. In this historical novel, the little-known author weaves a rich story of a group of daring outlaws whose lives and destinies are shaped and sealed by the war they fought for the Union army; a war that taught them to ride, steal, shoot, and kill even in peacetime.

In reality, the Reno Brothers, also known as The Jackson Thieves, were five brothers—John, Frank, Simeon, William, and Clinton—born to god-fearing parents on a ranch in Rockford, Jackson County, Indiana. They also had a sister called Laura. They were made to read the Bible and attend church on Sunday. They had some schooling. While their mother taught them manners, their father gave them a hard time. When they grew up, circumstances led them astray and four of the brothers took to crime.

“They are basically a wild bunch, ruined by their war experiences.”

Often, too much fact can spoil fiction. In this book, however, you cannot separate fact from fiction or fiction from fact. They are intermingled in a seamless plot.

Big John Reno
In The Renos, the Bible-quoting Big John leads his four brothers and their trusted cousins and cohorts on a crime spree in the Midwest, striking terror wherever they go. They are a dandy lot, dressed in slickers and greatcoats and wide-brimmed hats, and carrying twin revolvers. The brothers share a close bond. They have a pecking order, first John, then Frank, and so on. Their sister Laura does not figure in the story. In real life, the youngest Clinton was said to be an honest lad who stayed behind. In the story, he is the loudest and most lecherous of all.

"Nobody, as far as (John) knew, had tried stopping an express train on its track before."

At the heart of the story is the daring robbery of the first railroad train in the history of America, the Ohio and Mississippi Flyer, in Jackson County, Indiana, on October 6, 1866. It’s a robbery that wasn’t attempted even by Jesse James or any of the other infamous outlaws of that era. The Renos and the “trash” who ride with them gallop fast alongside the steaming locomotive, yell like Comanches, and fire in the air before boarding the train and looting $10,000 ($13,000 in real life) from the armoured Adams car.

The run on the Flyer does not cost a single life. For the Renos have sworn never to kill, partly because of their religious belief and partly because they don’t want to be hanged. As John tells his brothers, “We don’t want to kill nobody if it can be helped. We give ‘em a chance to surrender first.”

The first train robbery is soon followed by the daylight break-in at the Davies County Treasury in Gallatin, Missouri, from where the Renos make off with over $22,000. The spoils of both the raids are shared equally between the brothers.

After the robberies, John and Frank want to go straight and settle down, but greed for more ill-gotten wealth keeps them on the wrong path. The brothers settle down in Seymour, Jackson County, and virtually take over the little railroad town and its establishments, inviting anger and hatred of its peaceful inhabitants.

The Reno boys are unaware that their unlawful reign is soon going to end. Well, almost. For, hot on their trail is the famous private detective Allan Pinkerton and his three agents, notably the tall and white-haired Charlie Durango who as a Union spy had infiltrated Confederate lines during the war. Pinkerton became legendary during his relentless pursuit of Jesse James, the Dalton gangs, and Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch among others.

Frank Reno
The wily Pinkerton convinces the trusting John to meet him alone to discuss amnesty but, instead of keeping his word, he “hijacks” the big outlaw from under the noses of his brothers and their comrades and whisks him off to Chicago, to serve forty years in prison. In reality, John Reno was sentenced to twenty-five years. 

Frank Reno, the second brother, takes charge of the gang and continues to ambush railroad trains before finally fleeing to Canada where the final showdown takes place.

The characters
There are no heroes or villains in The Renos. Big John and his brothers may be marauding outlaws but they mean well and are generous with their booty. The eldest brother is a man of principles and he holds the flock together, at least until his early exit, after which Frank takes over and shows his ugly side. Frank is the only one with a girlfriend called Hetty Hancock, a seamstress in Seymour. She hates Frank for his nefarious ways but, like an old-fashioned woman, she accepts the fact that she belongs to him. And then she meets Pinkerton agent Charlie Durango. His boss Allan Pinkerton is a hard taskmaster. Throughout the story, his obsession with tracking down the Renos runs parallel with the misdoings of the brothers.

The novel is filled with lots of other characters from brave and cowardly sheriffs and an ex-army major to railroad clerks and guards, to saloon owners and prostitutes, to “shabby hangdog men” and hooligans.

Final word
The Renos, a Black Horse Western, has all the elements of a traditional western minus gunfight and murder, though the unintentional shooting of a train guard goes against the Renos’ credo of no killings. Author Wolf Lundgren doesn't just tell you the life story of the Renos; he also frequently refers to the Civil War, such as guns like the Henry rifles and Remington army revolvers that were, and are still, used; the fiery Morgan stallions bred on the Reno ranch and used by the brothers; the ruined village of Shiloh, the second great battle of the war where thousands of men slaughtered each other in two days; and the Grotto Saloon, Independence, Missouri, a bustling city and the gathering point for settlers.

Two events stand out in this novel: the formation of a vigilante committee made up of the “honest citizens of Seymour,” who track down the last four Reno boys and their trusted lieutenants and hang them in cold blood; and Big John’s recurrent diatribe against politicians when he growls, “The whole country’s in a mess. The ordinary man don’t have a chance. We might be robbers but we’re no worse than that gang of thieves in Washington led by President Grant.”

The Reno brothers were the subject of at least two movies one of which had Elvis Presley as the youngest brother Clinton.

The Author
I have no idea who Wolf Lundgren is. There is next to nothing about him on the internet. The name could be a pseudonym for a noted writer of westerns. After enjoying the brisk and unhindered pace of The Renos, I’m looking forward to reading his other three novels, Battle at Gun Barrel Canyon, Scorched Lightning, and Gold Frenzy.

20 comments:

  1. Prashant, a great review,
    I've never heard of the book or author, but then my exposure to this genre is limited. I doubt I will have time to expand my horizons any further.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Col, thank you. I discover new western authors practically every month. I intend to expand my horizons in this fascinating genre.

      Delete
    2. You cover the westerns, I'll cover the crime!

      Delete
    3. Col, I'm going to catch up with you on crime too though not at your speed of reading and reviewing them!

      Delete
  2. Cool. This sounds quite nice. I've liked the Black Horse westerns I've read so far

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles, thank you. It was a very well-written book. I enjoyed reading it.

      Delete
  3. All of this was completely unknown to me and I have not heard of the auhtor before either - fascinating stuff Prashant, thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sergio, thank you. I read about the American Civil War every now and then, mostly online, and then learn new things from the westerns I read.

      Delete
  4. Always enjoy Black Horse Westerns of which I have many fine novels.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David, I haven't read many of them and will be on the lookout for other titles by various authors. I like the overall hardback printing too.

      Delete
  5. Nicely reviewed. My book on Pinkerton links the Reno and Younger gangs to an "upsurge in lawlessness following the Civil War" and "a new breed of train and bank robbers that sprang from groups of raiding irregulars." The period saw a rise in vigilantism often with the complicity of Pinkerton. The last of the Renos were hanged by vigilantes who broke into the jail where they were in custody.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ron, is your book on Pinkerton already published? THE RENOS covers vigilante mobs quite extensively. I made a reference to it in my review but what you say is exactly what happens in the story. I didn't know vigilantism was often done with the tacit understanding of Pinkerton.

      Delete
  6. Never heard of this writer.

    Off topic a bit: what are your thoughts on Louis L'Amour? Have you read him? I just bought a bunch of his books in the Sackett series. My mother went through them all when I was in high school years ago. I've always been curious about his works andt bought the first two in the series to try.

    The western you reviewed sounds really good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Keishon, thank you. I'm biased towards most western novels. Reading them as a non-American allows me to view them impartially. I have read many books of Louis L'Amour including the Sackett novels though two titles I like most are HONDO and FLINT. I also used to read J.T. Edson, George G. Gilman's EDGE novels, and SUDDEN by Oliver Strange, the last remains my favourite western series till date.

      Delete
    2. I have FLINT so that's great. I love westerns books or film (Unforgiven being my favorite of them all) but never seem to go out of my way to read or watch them unless it's by word of mouth. I realized my comment above was contradictory. I bought 5 of his Sackett books and other titles not associated with that series (just to clarify) like FLINT and IRON MARSHAL. Will look up HONDO.

      Aside: just when I get a day off I thought I'd want to see Captain Phillips at the theatre but saw a commercial that it's coming out on DVD today. Seems like the time between theatrical release and DVD release was not very long.

      Delete
    3. Keishon, thanks for writing back. I loved FLINT and have read it more than once. I have a small pile of unread westerns including some by L'Amour that are begging attention. Other books get in the way. I enjoy western films too, especially the early ones, and usually buy CDs whenever I can. I'm not always happy with the quality of online videos. You'll like HONDO, I'm sure. I feel like re-reading some of these westerns.

      I think DVDs of new films are out within three months of their release in the theatres, maybe earlier in some cases. But then, films rarely last more than a week or two in cinema halls. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is worth every penny. You're in for a treat, Keishon.

      Delete
  7. Sounds great. I know of the Renos via the movie Rage at Dawn but the book and author are unfamiliar. I've ordered a copy based on your recommendation though.

    Colin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Colin, thank you. RAGE AT DAWN is one of two movies I referred to in my review; the other being Elvis Presley's first movie LOVE ME TENDER where he plays the youngest brother. Of course, I have seen neither. I'd be keen to know what you think of this book, Colin.

      Delete
  8. Sounds good, Prashant. You have written a very convincing review. I will keep my eyes open for it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tracy, thank you for the kind words. If you like reading westerns, then you'll like this book. It is written in the backdrop of the Civil War and the reign of the Renos.

      Delete