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hanging judge

11 march 2024

Elmer Kelton's Hanging Judge dates from 1969, and is thus a contemporary of the film Little Big Man (1970, based on the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger), and of Arthur Kopit's play Indians (1968), among other fictions by white men that cast a revisionist gaze on the myths of the Western. Hanging Judge lacks the literary ambitions of those works, but Kelton was trying to bring some of the themes of the avant-garde Western into the pulp world. He didn't quite succeed, but one can note the earnestness with which he tried to create white characters who value Native and Black people.

Hanging Judge employs the age-old Western convention of hard-bitten white lawman (Sam Dark) and callow white protégé (Justin Moffitt). Justin wants to hunt down lawbreakers like the man who killed his father. Sam has hunted down too many lawbreakers, and is beginning to wonder if he's any better than the lawbreakers he pursues. But Sam reluctantly takes Justin under his wing and trains him up as an apprentice deputy marshal.

Sam has brought into Fort Smith, Arkansas a murderer named Barney Tankard, and the title character, Isaac Parker, has duly sentenced Barney to hang. The Tankards, a mixed-race white and Native family from across into the Territory, tried to stop a whiskey-peddler named Harvey Oates from poisoning Native youth, but Barney succumbed to liquor and killed a man. This sets up the revenge-tragedy plot of Hanging Judge. The characters proceed to eliminate one another till there are hardly any left.

Justin (and thus the reader) root for the Tankards, and thus for Sam Dark. Dark hews to his oath of office, but hates whiskey-peddlers worse than the killers they fuel. When the Tankards nurse Justin back to health after one of the novel's many gunfights, Justin also falls in love with Barney's sister Naomi: giving him even more reason to hate the rum-runners and their corrupt marshal ally Rice Pegler.

The forces of good (including the African-American deputy George Grider) try to negotiate a maze of obligations and obstacles to win through. Spoiler ahead: they mostly don't. Hanging Judge is also of its era in refusing a neat happy ending. As I mentioned, few characters survive; and even if they live ever after, it is unlikely to be happily.

Kelton, Elmer. Hanging Judge. 1969. In Hanging Judge and Bowie's Mine. New York: Tom Doherty, 2019.

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