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blood trails

14 september 2011

Paperback Westerns have been flooding into my local Kroger lately, at a rate too fast for me to keep up with. I seem to be the only person who ever buys or reads these books. I assume that the recent influx is an ultra-sensitive response to hyper-local demand, made by some inventory computer somewhere – maybe the same one that has decided my Kroger should buy several copies of Cryptograms Special every quarter and feature them at the top of the magazine rack. (Same customer, incidentally.)

New in August was Blood Trails by Lyle Brandt, who after the manner of pulp novelists turns out to be a pen name for someone else named Michael Newton. The cover of Blood Trails let me know that the Lawman, Jack Slade, would be tracking "the infamous Ripper . . . in Oklahoma Territory." Yes, that infamous Ripper, Jack. Apparently London didn't provide enough prostitutes or enough secret hiding places, so Jack has pulled up stakes and moved to Jubilee, Okla., pop. 106.

It would not be fair to reveal how Jack Slade deals with the Ripper, except to say that the showdown is more a matter of kitchen utensils at close quarters than firearms at high noon. In fact, given the potential for mayhem in the conjunction of two gory genres here (the Jack-the-Ripper novel and the pulp Western), there's surprisingly little graphic hideousness in Blood Trails. I'm not complaining; in fact I was pleasantly surprised. Everything stays on a fairly PG-13 level, and there's more attention to psychological nuance than to lethal wounds.

Blood Trails is the eighth of the Lawman novels; I am innocent of the first seven. I like Jack Slade as a character. He's level-headed, knows his limitations, and has a kind of proleptic progressiveness that makes him very much a sensitive 21st-century male given a gun and told to keep the peace in the 19th-century fictional West. As in any good series, the final chapter provides cliffhangery reasons to read the next book, and I will gladly do so if my Kroger will oblige.

If they won't, I can always get the next installment for Kindle, if I get a Kindle. Somehow I don't like the idea of pulp fiction moving onto e-readers, though. It means one more dead metaphor in communications technology. And it seems to work against the serendipitousness of good genre fiction. You should be able to come across good Westerns at the supermarket or the paperback exchange or the thrift store. If niche fiction like Blood Trails goes paperless, I am not sure how I'd get at it. Much of its appeal is in the physical object and its marketing context. I intend to drop my copy of Blood Trails in a charity-sale box after I post this review, to the delight of some booktable browser: what could I do with a Kindle copy?

Brandt, Lyle. Blood Trails. New York: Penguin, 2011. [The Lawman]