MYSTERY RANCH (1930) by Max Brand
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Having been prospecting in the desert for six months, rugged young John Templar makes his way to the town of Last Luck, intent on spending for a good time some of the gold dust he has accumulated. A good time he must indeed have had, but when he awakens held down by five men sitting on him, he has no memory of what he did or why he's being physically restrained in a jail cell. From a conversation with these townsfolk, he gleans that he went on a drunken spree, in the process managing to wreck a good portion of the town and inflict a substantial amount of damage to its citizens. Oddly enough, they're more matter-of-fact than resentful when reporting to Templar what he's done, seeming almost to admire the spirit of this brawny youth who is not yet quite twenty-one years old.
Not long afterward, one by one, the three proprietors of the pleasure palaces he tornadoed through visit Templar at the jail, each man offering him a job as a peacekeeper in his establishment, each man offering a bigger salary than the last. Each tells Templar to think it over and give him an answer tomorrow. It's when a fourth man shows up that the sheriff himself is excited for Templar. The man is wealthy and prominent Andrew Condon, owner of the biggest ranch in the area. He asks permission to take Templar for a ride, and the sheriff consents.
Condon seems impressed with the young man, and Templar is impressed with the older man's sprawling ranch. Although he appears to be a very confident, composed man, Condon eventually admits he needs a bodyguard, that someone is trying to kill him. He's willing to pay handsomely for protection. Although not a gunslinger, and with no desire to be one, Templar takes the job.
Also living in the main house is Condon's nephew Munroe Lister. Studiously attentive to his law books, he's not a namby-pamby. He makes it clear early on that if Templar speaks sharply to him, as he has already done once, he's prepared to take him on in a fight. And then there's Snyder, an ex-prizefighter who serves as Condon's butler. He and Templar take almost instant dislikes to each other, and their antagonism is a factor through a substantial portion of the novel. But the person who intrigues Templar above all others is the Chinese woman, whom he nicknames "Hong Kong," who cooks and cleans for the household. Is she really Chinese? he wonders. Is she being truthful when she pretends not to understand more than a few words of English? Why is some of her behavior so furtive? Is she or is she not who and what she professes to be?
Templar has barely settled in on the ranch and begun his duties when Condon's self-possession leaves him, replaced by sheer terror and the certainty that an attempt will be made on his life that evening. He's right, but Templar shoots and kills the assassin. As it turns out, Condon knows the man, Larry Harmon, but won't explain how to Templar. And strangely, despite having almost been murdered, Condon is a completely relaxed man the next day, once again poised and self-assured.
Plenty of action, excitement and mysterious episodes lie ahead, including a couple of brutal murders, before Templar gets to the bottom of it all. To do this, he teams up with his old friend, fellow desert rat and giant of a man Danny O'Shay, who has come into Last Luck "because I love fun more than money." For awhile I thought Mystery Ranch would turn out to be a fairly-clued whodunit with a western setting, and that O'Shay would be the man to solve it. However, it's not that kind of a story, and most experienced mystery readers will have the satisfaction of figuring out the "surprise" revelation well before they reach it. The book nevertheless contains the requisite "sock finish."
Max Brand is the most famous of the pen-names used by the phenomenally prolific (over 500 novels and a comparable number of short stories) Frederick Schiller Faust. Although I've been familiar with the...uh...Brand name since adolescence, this was my first experience with one of his works. It's written in a prose that blends the style of Nineteenth Century fiction with that of Twentieth Century pulp fiction--and, in fact, Mystery Ranch originally ran as a serial in the pulp Western Story Magazine in 1928, and was republished in hardcover in 1930 under the present title in the United States and as Mystery Valley in the United Kingdom. According to what I've read from several sources over the years, Faust used his real name only for his poetry, for which he wanted to be remembered. But it's the Max Brand material that has survived so far, and one can find the poet in passages like this: "Now in Last Luck there were three palaces among hovels, three noble ships for the eyes of the shipwrecked, three islands of green among the hot sands." (I never said it wasn't hokey by modern standards.) And: "Now with the moon sailing higher, and the gilded rocks standing like so many men in armor, and the loftier mountains removed in shadowed dignity, and the breath of the pines abroad, it seemed to Templar a moment of enchantment, and a place for wild deeds."
A couple of offensive racial epithets make more than a few appearances throughout the story. Whether they reflect Faust's attitude, or whether he was merely recreating the attitude of the period he was writing about, I can't say. But I mention this as a warning to sensitive readers.
With that caveat in place, I think many a reader will find in Mystery Ranch to be some good old-fashioned entertainment combining two of our most popular genres, the western and the mystery.
Barry Ergang ©2011
Former Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, Derringer winner Barry Ergang's work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. His website is http://writetrack.yolasite.com/ From a need to reduce clutter, he's selling many of the books he's accumulated over the years.
You can find the titles and cover scans, along with purchasing information, at http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/ If you're in need of a good editor, Barry will put his skills to work on your behalf--see http://writetrack.yolasite.com/editorial-services.php