Once again, I dip into the coincidence theater that is Edgar Rice Burroughs' work, this time with a standalone soap opera/melodrama/thriller/western/romance/mystery -- that's a lot of area to cover for a that on its surface should be considered laughable by modern reads.
Perhaps it's best if I just tell you whom this novel is about.
- COLONEL CUSTER PENNINGTON. A Virginian from a long line of proud Penningtons, the Colonel came to southern California with his family for his health. He fell in love with the clean outdoor living the area afforded, bought the Rancho el Ganado, prospered, and will never leave the area. He is proud, honest, and upright and has tried to teach his children to be the same.
- CUSTER PENNINGTON. The eldest of the Colonel's two children and heir to his estate. Custer is somewhat of a prig, a dim bulb, and an incipient alcoholic -- although I'm sure the author did not mean to portray him thusly. When angered (which is not often), he may fly into a violent rage. Custer loves the ranch, his family, and
- GRACE EVANS. Grace is Custer's fiance and the Pennington's neighbor. Custer and his sister and Grace and her brother grew up together. Grace and her brother live with their mother, a woman who had been abandoned by her husband when the children were very young. The family moved to Southern California and -- as with the Colonel -- fell in love with the area. Grace, however, also has ambitions. She wants to be a movie actress and plans to move to Hollywood to try her luck. After a year or two, when she has become a success, she will move back to marry Custer. She is beautiful and, needless to say, also somewhat of a dim bulb. Her character may not be the strongest.
- EVA PENNINGTON. She is Custer's little sister, a beautiful young woman who is bright, annoyingly perky, easily led, and naive. For some reason, everybody loves her, especially
- GUY EVANS. Guy is Grace's older brother and a struggling writer. He is somewhat engaged to Eva and will marry her once he has sold some stories and is able to support her. Guy wants to have enough money to marry, but he is also fond of drink. These two thing, combined with his immaturity, have got him ensnared in criminal activity, acting as a go-between for a large shipment of alcohol that has been stolen from a government warehouse. Like most people in this book, Guy believes the Volstad Act was both misguided and silly.
- SLICK ALLEN. A neer-do-well who blackmailed Guy into acting as his agent for the stolen liquor, Slick has finagled a job on Rancho el Ganado as a hand in order to keep an eye on the illegal stash, which he has hidden on a remote part of the ranch. Slick controls a gang of murderous Mexicans in this enterprise, but Slick himself is controlled by another, who has him running dope. When Custer caught Slick torturing a horse, he fired him and slick is one to hold a grudge.
- WILSON CRUMB. He's a man who lives up to his name, a complete cad. Crumb is a handsome Hollywood actor and director and total rotter. Crumb is also a dope dealer and Slick Allen's boss in that venture. His greed knows no bounds and that greed and a fear that he is losing control of Allen has him setting Allen up to be arrested and sentenced to a year in prison. Allen, as we know, is one to hold a grudge. When Grace arrives in Hollywood, she falls under Crumb's spell and (remember, she's a dim bulb) soon is posing nude for him. Crumb then tricks her into becoming an addict. As Grace slides further into depravity, she becomes Crumb's mistress and a reliable conduit for selling his wares. This is not the first time Crumb has corrupted an innocent. Before Grace, there was
- SHANNON BURKE, The Girl From Hollywood, also known as GAZA DE LURE. Shannon was another innocent who came to Hollywood seeking stardom and fell into Crumb's lair. Crumb tricked her into becoming addicted to cocaine and morphine. Despite her addiction, Shannon is at heart a strong character. She kept her true name hidden from Crumb and his cohorts and, although forced to sell drugs, refused to sleep with him. When Shannon gets word that her mother is desperately ill, she leave Crumb to rush to her side. Coincidentally, he mother has bought a small orchard next to Rancho el Ganado. When her mother dies, the Pennington's take Shannon under their wing, unaware of her past as Gaza de Lure. The wholesome country living and Shannon's strong will cure the girl of her addiction. She falls in love with Custer but knows she must never let that be known because the highly moral Penningtons, whom she now looks on as family, could never understand or approve of her had they known the truth.
So there are misunderstandings, imprisonment of an innocent, a tragic death, threats, a murder, self-sacrifice, a trial that ends with a near hanging, a raging fire, a few twists here and there, a suicide attempt, kisses, unwelcome advances, a hard-assed U.S. marshal, a very rushed conclusion, and a startling (well, perhaps not so startling) last sentence.
Writer and critic Damon Knight once described a "idiot plot," wherein nothing would happen in a story if everyone was not an idiot. Such is the case here.
Still, there is something about this book and about Burroughs' writing. I've said before that Burroughs is not a literary stylist. As a matter of fact, he can be a pretty clunky writer. But he somehow can drag the reader along, faster and faster into his coincidence-filled world. Burroughs knows how to excite and how to make the reader care for his characters in spite of all logic (and critical taste).
Did I like this book? Of course I did. It's a prime example of what Bill Pronzini has called "alternative" literature -- writing so bad you have to love it.
I'm a sucker for this sort of thing.