Crime stories by Louis L’Amour? What’s going on here? Everybody knows L’Amour is the quintessential Western author (and, if you believe most book retailers — or those who bother to include a Western fiction section at all — the only Western author). So is THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF LOUIS L’AMOUR, VOLUME SIX: THE CRIME STORIES full of bandana-covered desperadoes robbing stage coaches, steam-powered locomotives and the lone bank in some dusty prairie town?
Nope. These are urban-based, dyed-in-the-wool mysteries and suspense tales — not a horse to be found in any of them. They are, in fact, among the many stories L’Amour wrote during his formative years in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, when the pulp magazines were in their full bloom. And like many of his contemporary authors, L’Amour wrote for the market, which then included several periodicals that featured crime and mystery stories.
And they are all generally well-written, solidly structured and thoroughly entertaining stories that hold up quiet well.
“Unguarded Moment,” the opening story, follows the unexpected and threatening consequences when an ordinarily honest man gives in to the temptation of picking up a dropped wallet full of cash. “Time of Terror” tells of an insurance agent suddenly confronted by a man he confirmed as dead, who now accuses the agent of being part of the scam. Police detectives appear often, in stories like “Police Band,” as do private eyes (“The Hills of Homicide”), grifters, gamblers and other varied and assorted pulp lowlifes.
Several tales deal with the corruption-filled and moral ambiguous world of boxing. Stories like “Fighter’s Fiasco,” “The Money Punch,” “Sideshow Champion” and others evoke the sights and smells of the ring, the locker rooms and the alleys behind auditoriums, no doubt owing to L’ Amour’s earlier career as a prize fighter.
There is no lack of action in this collection, but the violence is minimal and mostly inferred. The plots are inventive and characters effective and believable. And while the lengths vary from a few pages to near novella-length, the pacing throughout is sure-handed and maintains interest to each conclusion.
It’s only when L’Amour tries to talk tough that he falls short of the mark. For the most part, the dialogue is reliable and effective. But when he goes for the street slang of the period, his characters sound campy and unconvincing.
This generous collection – 33 entries in all – is surprisingly plain-looking. A small, somewhat blurry drawing of a boxing match is the only illustration adorning the cover. The contents could have greatly benefitted with an introductory essay about L’Amour’s pre-Western works, or a listing of the publications where these stories first appeared. There is a brief, uncredited biography at the very end that unfortunately tells us little more than we already know about this popular author.
It’s recommended both for its entertainment value and as an early demonstration of L’Amour’s skills before he found his niche in Western fiction. While it’s unlikely that this collection will result in the legion of L’Amour fans investigating the works of other crime authors, crime readers could use this as their introduction to the enduring works of this prolific Western storyteller. Lord knows, they could do far worse.
And who knows? If L’Amour’s breakout novel had been a mystery, instead of HONDO in 1953, we might recall him as one of the grand old masters of the mystery field. And, again, we could have done far worse. —Alan Cranis