Saturday, November 14, 2009


I have been reading an unusually high number of westerns recently, and older westerns at that. I continued the trend with an ACE Double—one-half of an ACE Double—published in 1967; The Action at Redstone Creek by Merle Constiner (G-638). Mr Constiner’s work was unfamiliar to me—it was recommended by Ed Gorman—and I found it unusually literate, if not a bit odd, for an old genre western.

Mark Townsend is a gladly out of work tracker, but as the novel opens he is sitting at an ax-cut table in his rustic home staring at his final three silver quarters. He isn’t overly worried, but he is realistic—he doesn’t care for money, but he knows there are necessities only coin money can buy. His money problems only last—a page or two—until a dandy walks into his home and offers him a job.

The dandy, a man named Joe Teague, wants him to find his son who disappeared on his way to an engineering job at a mine in Idaho. The pay: one hundred dollars. Townsend takes the job, but quickly realizes Teague was less than honest with him, and the job is much more dangerous and involved than simply tracking a man. In fact, it isn’t too far into the story that he runs into a pair of toughs who have ill intentions towards Teague directly and Townsend indirectly.

The Action at Redstone Creek is vintage ACE—it starts with a bang and hurriedly moves from one scene to the next. There are gunfights, intrigues, cattle rustling, dueling ranchers, and lonely frontier dwelling men. The difference, or what separates it from most of the other ACE westerns, is the writing. It is fresh with a witty sense of humor. The prose and dialogue—not to mention a few of the situations and character relationships—is sharp, realistic and, at times, damn funny:

“It was midafternoon. He was staring at the quarters, trying to think of them in terms of cornmeal and fat pork, but thinking mainly what nice conchos they’d make, when the man stooped down and came through the door.

“‘No offense meant,’ said the stranger, ‘but for a white man’s shack, this place has a sort of stink, a little like Indian smell.’

“‘Thank you,’ said Townsend. ‘Maybe some kindhearted Indian sometime will say as much for you.’”

The story doesn’t do the expected, and the characters are never typical—they dress and walk like the typical western character, but their actions, language, and responses tend to shy away from genre norms. An example is Townsend. He is far from the archetypal hero in both appearance and form. He is described as: “thirty-four, short, a little humped, big nosed, almost lizard eyed, and pretty ragged for the gaze of any white man.”

The Action at Redstone Creek is different, but its unusualness separates it from the herd. It is a story that will appeal to readers of traditional westerns, but its quirky nature will also appeal to others who are less inclined to read a western.

When I read Redstone Creek I did a little research on the author and I was saddened by what I learned. He died broke (the plight of many pulp writers) and alone. His life reminded me of Townsend's, particularly the opening scene when Townsend is staring at his final three quarters.

There is a detailed article at Pulp Rack about the life and work of Merle Constiner. It is titled "The Hunt for Merle Constiner" and written by Peter Ruber. Read the article, and then find one of Constiner's novels.


Ed Gorman said...

Back in my teen years I'd buy most of the monthly Ace output--sf, mystery and westerns. The mystery reprints were usually good to very good, the originals 50-50 (No book called Mambo To Murder can survive its title). But all it took was one book by Constiner to know here was somebody who had a fair amount of the magic. I identified with his protagonists, something I never did with the standard issue western (I've never been able to imagine myself a hero of any kind). He also wrote a lot of fine crime stories for the pulps. Really fine review, Ben.

Bill Crider said...

Glad to see this one. I reviewed the book on my blog four years ago (I thought it was about two years; time flies). Though my comments are brief, you can tell I felt pretty much the way you do about the book.

Ben Boulden said...

Ed. My wife and I joke about driving into the Twilight Zone of books--hit a small town with an old drug store that stocks the old paperbacks; new on the wire rack. Buy a few and then sit at the counter and order a soda. Maybe that's not so much the Twilight Zone as Black River Falls...

I've had a fascination with the ACE Double books since I was a teenager and first discovered thrift shops sold books. Every time I saw one I purchased it, and amazingly I've carried them around the past twenty years or so. It has only been this year that I have really started reading them--beyond one or two a year--and some are great, while others are tedious. Merle Constiner is one of the best I've read so far.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Ben Boulden said...

Bill. I read your review and really enjoyed it. The funny thing, I actually purchased a second copy of REDSTONE CREEK on accident, too. I found a copy at a little bookstore a few weeks ago and when I got it home I realized it was one of a few titles I already had.

Must be the curse of Redstone creek.