Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, August 18, 2022


 Outlaw by Frank Gruber (1941)

Jim Chapman was just sixteen when he joined the Confederate army.  Four years later he was a hardened, weary man who just wanted peace.  The war had taught him how to kill and riding with Quantrell's Raiders through their bloody rampage through Texas had begun to sicken him of killing.   Following Quantrell's death Chapman went further south to Mexico until he felt it was time to go home to Missouri.  The trip home was significant for three events.  First, he accosted a drunken Yankee bully on the train headed home.  The bully, an influlential man named Pike, became Chapman's bitter enemy.  Second, Pike's bullying had it target in young Evelyn Comstock.  Chapman's intervention began her fascination with the Confederate with the haunted eyes.  Third, witness to Cahpman's confrontation with Pike was Allen Pinkerton Alan Vickers, the head of the largest detective agency in the country.  Vickers, impressed by how Chapman handled himself, offered him a job in his agency.  Chapman said he would think about it.

During Reconstruction, Missouri was under the control of the Union Army and Freedom, the town where Chapman came from, was heavily Confederate and felt the grinding heel of the Union.  Some Confederate homes were confiscated.  Confederate families and sympathizers were persecuted and left without money or resources.  A number of Chapman's former friends retaliated by robbing a Union bank, using the money to help maintain their farms and property.  When Chapman returned to freedom, many of his friends -- those who survived the war -- had already returned home and were struggling under the lash of the Reconstruction government.  Chapman's father and brother were dead; his sister and her husband were struggling to keep the famliy farm afloat.  Wounds caused by the war were still raw and fresh, but Chapman had a hard time seeing this; for him the war was over and it was time to move on in peace.  Some of Chapman's old friends wanted him to join them in robbing Union banks but Chapman declined.

Pike, the Unionist bully chpman had humiliated, hated not only Chapman but also any Cnfederate sympathizer.  One evening, Pike and some of his cronies got drunk and, donning Union uniforms, went hunting for Chapman, who was returning home with a friend.  The attack left Chapman' friend dead and Chapman wounded, but Chapman did avoid being captured by Pike.  Out of a sense of vengeance, Chapman then agreed to join in with his friends in robbing another Union bank.  Thi timme it wa the firt daylight robbery of a bank in the country.

More robberies followed, including the first hold-up of a U.S. mail train for its gold.  Soon Chapman and his gang were known nation-wide for their daring exploits.  Some of the men in Chapman's outfit were a bit quick on the trigger and  bank employees were killed.  Chapman's name became legendary but no one knew what he looked like -- except for one man.  Allen Pinkerton Alan Vickers, the detective agency head, had met Chapman several times and even offered to allow Chapman to surrender to him, guaranteeing Chapman a light sentence, after which he could start rebuilding his life.  But Vickers was an unscrupulous man, and had used his war-time contacts to betray the Confederacy and Chapman would have nothing to do with him.  

Vickers had a nation-wide netwrok of agents, all of whom he placed against Chapman.  Yet Chapman kept eluding the detective's traps.  Chapman's ability to evade Vickers once led the detective close to bankruptcy and, in his growing hatred of Chapman, Vickers began employing killers to get his opponent.  To get Chapman, Vickers thought nothing of stoopping to murder...

In the meantime, Chapman -- who wanted nothing more than peace -- married Evelyn Comstock and tried to give her the quiet life she deserved.  Time and again, Vickers' men would close in on Chapman and his bride, forcing them to flee agin and again.  Finally, Chapman sent Evelyn home, promising to one day return to her.

That's the nub of Gruber's tale.  Fleshed out with vivid descriptions of mining towns, cattle towns, and the big and growing cities of the post Civil-war era, including the inner workings of the Chicago stock market.  Along the way we meet Wild Bill Hickok. Wyatt Earp, Sam Bass, and other western legends in this detailed-filled evocation of a time gone by.  As we watch the country continue to grow we also see Chapman's options dwindle in an almost inverse ratio.  The reader is acutely aware of what Jim Chapman's fate will be while also hoping this once-decent man turned outlaw will avoid it.

Outlaw was Frank Gruber's second published western novel.  Since the copyright in the book reads "1940, 1941" it's safe to assume that it had a previous publication in one of the pulps.  It turns out that Gruber had three different stories published under that title:  a novella published in Short Stories (June 25, 1938), a three-part serial in Adventure (November and December 1940 and January 1941); and a short story in Street & Smith's Romantic Range (August 1942).  I'm willing to bet it was this novel that was serialized in Adventure, but no copies of that magazine are available for me to confirm this.

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) had a long and successful career that began in the pulps and transitioned to hardbound mysteries and westerns and also to film and television.  He published two dozen western novels inclulding Peace Marshal (1939; filmed as The Kansan), Gunsight (1942, filmed as Oregon Trail), Fighting Man (1948; filmed as Fighting Man of the Plains), Broken Lance (1949; filmed first as The Great Missouri Raid and then as Warpath), Fort Starvation (1953; filmed as Backlash), and Buffalo Grass (1956: filmed as The Big Land).  Gruber also created three western television series:  Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan, and Shotgun Slade.  He also wrote a bigraphy of classic western writer Zane Grey.

Gruber also published 34 mystery and suspense novels including fourteen books featuring huckster Johnny Fletcher and his strongman pal Sam Cragg, three novels about the flashy Otis Beagle, and one featuring Gruber's character Simon Lash.  For the pulps, Gruber wrote fifteen stories about Oliver Quade, the "Human Encyclopedia," twenty-four stories (mainly fillers) about Jim Strong, four about Samuel Deering, eleven stories about John Vedders* as fillers for Operator #5, three stories featuring Sam Vedder*, four fillers for The Spider about Douglas March, three fillers for The Mysterious Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin about Jud Stanton, and three fillers about T. T. Todd for The Shadow.  In all, Gruber published over 300 stories -- mainly mysteries and westerns -- in the pulps.  He also wrote sixty-five screenplays (including The Mask of Dimetrios, Terror by Night, Johnny Angel, and Bulldog Drummond at Bay.  Gruber also wrote some one hundred television scripts, including some for Lawman, 77 Sunset Strip, Colt 45, Zane Grey Theater, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Death Valley Days.  He even scripted one episode of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

Anthony Boucher noted the fast pace of Gruber's fiction and his "incredibly fertile imagination."  Gruber also had anninncredible sense of the market whic allowed him to become one of the "kings of the pulps."  His reminences of the pulp era, The Pulp Jungle, is highly recommended.    

* Gruber also used the name "John K. Vedder" as a pseudonym.

1 comment:

  1. Frank Gruber was one of those versatile writers who could produce great Westerns and great Crime stories.