The latest in Hamlett’s Western saga (John Lee Johnson and the Gunslingers, 2013, etc.) continues Johnson’s old-fashioned Western adventures fighting outlaws with trusted allies.
In 1864, Frank McGrew, a former brigadier general and Civil War hero, has been drummed out of the Union Army for extortion, murder, and other crimes, but thanks mostly to his rich father, he avoided real justice. Now he seeks revenge against the men he holds responsible for bringing him down, including lawman John Lee Johnson and Johnson’s friend Levi Brown. When Brown hears of McGrew’s revenge plan to arm hostile Native American tribes, he enlists Johnson and a simple-minded deserter named Mumford Dale Bradshaw to help. (Hamlett has a thoroughly enjoyable way with names.) Brown’s plan is to use Bradshaw as a decoy, with Johnson pretending to be Bradshaw; Johnson even fools Bradshaw’s blind uncle. What follows is a series of classic Western set pieces, including ambushes, stagecoach rides with dangerous men, and scenes of wrestling and befriending an honor-bound renegade Cheyenne man, Injun Joe. This straight-ahead adventure novel sometimes lacks nuance; for example, readers learn in an aside that the McGraw’s money comes, in part, from evilly selling shoddy weapons to the Union, and Injun Joe (real name: Kaneewah) tends to fit the “inscrutable” and “stoic” stereotype of the noble Native American. As in Hamlett’s other series installments, Johnson is so powerful and competent that readers may not feel much suspense regarding his safety. In fact, many characters remark on how secure Johnson is; as Brown notes, “Any man that goes after John Lee Johnson is a fool if John Lee Johnson knows he is coming,” and even hard-bitten outlaws refuse to tangle with him. But despite this lack of tension, it’s still gratifying to see the villains get their comeuppance. There are also some grace notes that keep the adventure from becoming formulaic, including Uncle Zed extolling the bathroom-related virtues of eating beans and the outlaw Doc Gragg gang having no Doc Gragg.
A quick-paced, ultimately satisfying Western yarn.