Friday, March 09, 2018

FFB Review: BAR-20 by Clarence E. Mulford (Reviewed by Barry Ergang)

Today for FFB, I am sharing again one of Barry’s FFB reviews. After you read his review below, make sure you check out Patti Abbott’s blog here for the complete list.

BAR-20 (1906) by Clarence E. Mulford

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

In the opening of my review of Son of a Wanted Man by Louis L'Amour, I mentioned how, after Turner Classic Movies ran a Roy Rogers marathon one day, I grew nostalgic for the B-westerns of my childhood. I had seen a few occasionally in adulthood, but it occurred to me that, among other heroes, I hadn't seen Hopalong Cassidy since I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. Thus I rented from Netflix a DVD that contained the first and third Hopalong Cassidy films, "Hop-Along Cassidy" and "Bar-20 Rides Again," both from 1935.

I wound up renting every Cassidy DVD I could, and even purchased some. I rented a great many other westerns, both A and B variety, and decided that among the B's, the Cassidy films were the best of the best, both in scripts and production values. They were filmed at Paramount, with something of a real budget, whereas the others were done at the so-called "Poverty Row" studios--of which the best was Republic Pictures, home to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, among many others.

I later discovered a website called Pulpgen which contains dozens upon dozens of tales from the pulp magazine era, among them three of Clarence E. Mulford's Hopalong Cassidy short stories.
 It was probably inevitable, then, that I'd eventually read one of the Cassidy novels--and I have. It's the first one in the series, Bar-20, sometimes known as Rustler Round-Up or Hopalong Cassidy's Rustler Round-Up. Calling it a novel, however, is something of a stretch--unless you call it an episodic novel. It is not tightly plotted, does not involve Hopalong Cassidy and his cowpunching chums seeking to overcome obstacles in a quest to achieve one overarching goal. The episodes collectively do not imply, convey, or march toward a particular theme. Rather, the "novel," which could as easily have been labeled a collection of short stories and novelettes, is a recounting of colorful incidents in the lives of our hero and his cohorts from the Bar-20 ranch. Some only take a chapter to two to relate; others go on for four or five chapters. Many involve gunplay, at which Hopalong is quite adept. The "rustler round-up" of the alternate titles is the lengthiest and most exciting sequence.

Bar-20 was published in 1906. (Some sources claim 1907, but the majority have it at '06, so I'm assuming that's the correct year.) Although his characters speak slangy English, Mulford's narrative style is decidedly an old-fashioned one--e.g., "Buckskin gradually readjusted itself to the conditions which had existed before its sudden leap into the limelight as a town which did things. The soiree at the Houston House had drifted into the past, and was now substantially established as an epoch in the history of the town. Exuberant joy gave way to dignity and deprecation, and to solid satisfaction; and the conversations across the bar brought forth parallels of the affair to be judged impartially--and the impartial judgment was, unanimously, that while there had undoubtedly been good fights before Perry's Bend had disturbed the local quiet, they were not quite up to the new standard of strenuous hospitality. Finally the heat blistered everything back into the old state, and the shadows continued to be in demand."

Characterization is, for all practical purposes, non-existent, Mulford's omniscient point-of-view frequently jumping from one to another of his sound-alike characters and telling the reader what they're thinking and how they're behaving much more than showing it. If you noticed my use of the term "sound-alike," you understand  that not even the dialogue differentiates one cowboy from another.  The following exchange should give you a sense of it:

      Skinny left off romping with Red and yawned. "I wish that cook'ud wake up an' git breakfast. He's the cussedest hombre I ever saw--he kin go to sleep standin' up an' not know it. Johnny's th' boy that worries him--th' kid comes in an' whoops things up till he's gorged himself."
     "Johnny's got th' most appallin' feel for grub of anybody I knows," added Red. "I wonder what's keepin' him--he's usually hangin' around here bawlin' for his grub like a spoiled calf, long afore cookie's got th' fire goin'."
     "Mebby he rustled some grub out with him--I saw him tip-toein' out of th' gallery this mornin' when I come back for my cigs," remarked Hopalong, glancing at Billy.

The differences between cinematic Hoppy and literary Hoppy are striking. Silver-haired, avuncular William Boyd was 40 when he first took on the role he would play for the remainder of his career, and portrayed Cassidy as a man who could be tough and unrelenting when necessary but who was generally thoughtful and restrained, who used his guns and fists only when necessary. Literary Hoppy is an impetuous, lanky, rough-and-tumble redhead in his mid-20s who seems to thrive on brawls and gunplay, often going out of his way to look for trouble--or cause it.

Literary Hoppy earned his sobriquet after being wounded in the leg during a gun battle, which left him with a permanent limp. Cinematic Hoppy is wounded and left limping during his recuperation, referring to himself as "Hopalong" Cassidy in the first film. But in all of the subsequent films, he isn't hobbled at all.

Both cinematic and literary Hoppy work as cowpunchers for the Bar-20 ranch. In the books, Buck Peters is the ranch foreman. In the movies, Buck is the ranch owner and Hoppy is his foreman. There is no mention of the ranch's owner in this novel.

For me as a big fan of the movies, the novel was a treat, a relatively fast-paced, sometimes picaresque romp on the range.  If you don't mind its old-fashioned narrative style and can forgive the lack of characterization, you're likely to enjoy it, too.

***For further information about Hopalong Cassidy and William Boyd, have a look at the wonderful Old Corral website ( YouTube has a number of the films available (

Barry Ergang © 2011, 2014, 2018

While his website is  some of Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang’s work is available at Amazon and 


James Reasoner said...

The different sections of this book were published originally as short stories in THE OUTING MAGAZINE. I remember reading and enjoying this book but it is definitely episodic. (And I hate to think how long it's been since I read it. More than 50 years, certainly.)

Barry Ergang said...

Thank you for the valuable historical publication information, James. Although I read it a lot more recently than you did, I nevertheless salute you as a fellow senior citizen. As someone who has had lower-back problems, arthritis among them for quite a number of years, I can only marvel at how William Boyd managed to portray his version of Hoppy for as long as he did.