Sunday, 21 July 2013

Vultures in the Sun by Brian Garfield (1987)

A replica of my copy of the book
They hired a town tamer named Ethan Scott, a coldly efficient gunfighter with a dark reputation. Everyone knew that some blood would be shed before there could be peace. The only question was, whose blood would it be?

Any writer who has authored more than seventy books including nonfiction requires no introduction. Like Brian Garfield (74) who has not only been a prolific writer but has also redefined the way fiction is written. He has brought a refreshing style to many popular fiction like western, thriller, espionage, and mystery. There is a perfect balance between his stories and characters. If you haven’t read his books yet then I suggest you should. Garfield is a very good writer.

Most readers identify the American novelist and screenwriter with the Death Wish series, his most prominent work, and Hopscotch, the Edgar Award winning spy thriller. There is nothing wrong with this. Every author is known for one or two major works. For instance, think Frederick Forsyth and you’re thinking The Day of the Jackal; think Kurt Vonnegut and you promptly mention Slaughterhouse Five; think John Irving and you tick off The World According to Garp; think Joseph Heller and you’re picturing Catch-22; think John le Carré and you remember The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; think Robert Ludlum and you point to the Bourne trilogy, and so on and so forth.

I consider Brian Garfield to be one of the finest writers of frontier fiction, for his westerns like Tripwire (1973) and Apache Canyon (1986), and Buchanan’s Gun (1968), his single contribution to the Tom Buchanan series created by William Ard, all of them under the pseudonym Jonas Ward. Lesser-known books usually draw my attention to an author’s work. While I haven’t read every book by Garfield, I can single out the Russia-centric suspense novels Kolchak’s Gold and The Romanov Succession (both 1974), which I have read, and The Paladin (1980), a WWII novel in my possession and waiting to be read. A lot of good things have been said about this novel.

Vultures in the Sun is one of Garfield’s latter-day westerns. At 149 pages, it tells the story of dreaded Arizona gunfighter Ethan Scott who is hired by the wealthy mine owners of Lodestar to eliminate a gang of outlaws led by Henry Dierkes who have been hijacking their monthly payrolls and ore shipments.

Guy Murvain and Tom Larabee, the two largest mine and land owners, stand to lose the most in the large town divided, down its middle, by the respectable and the seedy. While they hire Ethan Scott, they don’t bargain for his ways: the gunfighter, sporting a black moustache, deep-set eyes and two guns, stares at his opponents till they’re provoked into drawing first and dropping dead in the ensuing gunfight. The bodies soon pile up. Dierkes loses men but not the will to confront his old enemy.

Matters come to a head when Ethan Scott fires at Tom Larabee and breaks his gun arm in defence of his “friend” Krayle MacIver, owner of the largest saloon in Lodestar. Guy Murvain realises he might have bitten more than he can chew. He tries to tame the town tamer by demanding the gunman’s loyalty towards the mine owners, but in vain.

“No man can hire my loyalty. My loyalty is to myself alone. What you've paid for is not loyalty but the performance of a job—and I’m performing that job. Mr. Murvain, when I took the job it was with the understanding that I would clean up the district—my way.”

Ethan Scott cleans up Lodestar his way, in a style reminiscent of Tombstone, except he does it alone with both his guns blazing.

Most westerns have a predictable storyline; the difference lies in the way they’re told. Garfield is a past master at this. He weaves the all-too familiar plot into a tight narrative with an equal share of clean prose and dialogue that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. The description of the town of Lodestar and the hostile terrain of Peacock Gorge, the hideout of the toughs, an essential part of every western, is kept to a bare minimum.

The dialogue between the lead characters is straightforward. The characters, apart from Ethan Scott and the others, include Krayle MacIver, an old acquaintance who endears himself to the gunman; the beautiful Marla Searles, a partner in MacIver’s saloon and Scott’s former girl; Nita Matlock, who runs a café and MacIver’s love interest; and Sheriff Eugenio Castillo, who casts his lot with Henry Dierkes before fleeing the town. There is a quiet vulnerability about each of the unique characters, particularly Scott who much as he'd like to refuses to change his hard and impersonal existence, because the gun has made him what he is.

“I didn’t make the rules, Marla. But I've had to learn them.”

One of the milder westerns I've read in recent times, Vultures in the Sun is nonetheless a stark portrayal of hardened men in an unforgiving land called the frontier.

10 comments:

  1. Very nice piece, Prashant. I am trying to think of whether i have read any of his books. I will have to look at a complete list.

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    1. Thank you, Patti. I'm sure you must have read Brian Garfield's books. He wrote in many genres. I recommend THE ROMANOV SUCCESSION which, I think, was his first book that I read and liked a lot.

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  2. Buchanan's Gun might have been one in that series I read early and liked a lot. A couple of others I didn't care for and though I have most of the series here I've read only a few.

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    1. Charles, I haven't read BUCHANAN'S GUN yet but I have read and reviewed BUCHANAN'S SIEGE and only read THE NAME'S BUCHANAN. I liked the character and the stories woven around his exploits. I'm hunting for the others in the series.

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  3. Sounds great Prashant, thanks - I only know Garfield from some of his thrillers and collaborations with Bill pronzini - definitely will be reading more Westerns - thanks again chum.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio. In fact, I haven't read any of Garfield's work in collaboration with Bill Pronzini. He has written many thrillers that I'm sure you'll enjoy reading. I like his style, there is a certain smooth quality to it.

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  4. I wasn't aware Garfield had done Westerns, so thanks. I might check this one out, I've enjoyed the meagre 2 of his that I've tried.

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    1. Thank you, Col. There are some authors I hope to read more this and next year and Brian Garfield is one of them. I plan to read all his westerns.

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  5. I haven't tried any of his books, yet, but I have Hopscotch. This is a great post, Prashant. I am interested in trying all of the different genres.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. I'm glad you liked it. HOPSCOTCH is a good espionage thriller with an unusual storyline. I'd be interested to learn your views on it. Garfield has written in more than one genre though I've missed one for the other. A correction is in process.

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