TANGLED TRAILS: A Western Detective Story (1921) by William MacLeod Raine
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
A lifelong mystery reader, several years ago I renewed the old pleasure of watching western films which in turn led me to read some western fiction for the first time in my life. Thus I must mention at the outset that Tangled Trails: A Western Detective Story, despite its billing and though written by an author primarily known for westerns, has nothing to do with the conventional western apart from its geographical locations, Wyoming and Colorado. It is a detective story starring a modern (circa 1921) cowboy, but one who usually travels from place to place by train or automobile instead of on horseback, and who does not wear a six-shooter on his hip.
Cowpuncher and sometime rodeo competitor Kirby Lane follows his friend "Wild Rose" McLean from Cheyenne to Denver when Rose receives a letter from her sister Esther indicating that the girl is "in trouble." It's never stated outright, but it quickly becomes clear that Esther is unmarried and pregnant, although the latter word is never used. The stigma to a woman of that era (and for several unenlightened decades thereafter) was an indelible mark of shame. Esther's letter doesn't say who the father is, but Rose eventually learns it's her employer, an older man named James Cunningham.
Cunningham is a wealthy and successful businessman, "a grim, gray pirate, as malleable as cast iron and as soft...the kind that takes the world by the throat and shakes success from it....Cunningham had always led a life of intelligent selfishness. He had usually got what he wanted because he was strong enough to take it. No scrupulous nicety of means had ever deterred him. Nor ever would. He played his own hand with a cynical disregard of the rights of others."
Kirby Lane is Cunningham's nephew. The two haven't spoken in years because of the manner in which Cunningham treated Lane's father.
Tangled Trails is a fairly straightforward detective novel with little in the way of subplots, so I don't want to give away too much of the story and spoil it for readers. Suffice it to say, then, that when Lane discovers that Cunningham has been brutally murdered, and is seen exiting the deceased's apartment in an unconventional manner, he finds himself at the top of the list of suspects and is determined to clear himself by bringing the real murderer to justice, all while trying to keep Esther McLean's name out of it lest she forever be dishonored.
He has plenty of suspects to choose from, all of whom were in or near Cunningham's apartment within a short time of one another. They include Mr. and Mrs. Hull, the mister being Cunningham's erstwhile partner in a legal but unethical irrigation scheme that bilked residents of Dry Valley; Olson, a farmer from Dry Valley who wants restitution or revenge; "Wild Rose" McLean, who wants him to do right by her sister; Shibo, the apartment building's janitor; Horikawa, Cunningham's valet; Phyllis Harriman, Cunningham's fiancée; and the deceased's nephews, one of whom is also named James, the other Jack.
Sorting out the time element to determine who the murderer is proves a tricky business, but at the end, in the grand tradition, Lane gathers all of the suspects in one room to reveal and elucidate.
The author's prose style combines telling with showing. The description of James Cunningham above demonstrates the former. The style reminds me of many a story from the hero pulps, especially when Raine takes time to remind the reader of the hero's strength, determination, unflappability, and physical prowess. When someone takes a shot at him, for example, the reader is told: "Arrow-swift, with the lithe ease of a wild thing from the forest, Kirby ducked round the corner for safety." And "It was characteristic of him that he did not fly wildly into the night. His brain functioned normally, coolly."
Available for free in a Kindle edition, Tangled Trails is a short fast read to have fun with but not take seriously. Even in the context of its times it's hardly credible that Kirby Lane, a murder suspect from Wyoming, would be released on bond and allowed to roam at will around Colorado (or flee the state altogether), and that he'd manage to ingratiate himself with the chief of police so as to solve crimes the law apparently couldn't because no mention is made of an ongoing police investigation.
Suspend your disbelief and it's entertaining.
Barry Ergang ©2012
Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award for the best flash fiction story of 2006, his written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, and fiction available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages. Remember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/ He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists.