Friday, August 08, 2014

THUNDER AT NOON by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Thunder at Noon is the eleventh novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964. It was extensively rewritten, and published as Dillinger in 1983, which is a shame because Thunder is a pretty terrific novel and its revision essentially doomed the original story to extinction.

1930. Mexico’s revolution is still a fresh memory. Harry Jordan is an English mining engineer who came to Mexico seeking adventure and wealth. He found an abundance of the former and little of the later. He spent the last year panning for gold in the Yaqui River basin and as the novel opens he is in Durango waiting for the next train north. His plans change when he is arrested on trumped up tax evasion charges after refusing a job offer from a wealthy mine owner named Don Jose Manuel de Rivera.

Jordan makes the only choice left and accompanies de Rivera to his mine outside the small town of Hermosa in Northeast Mexico. The mine is in deplorable condition. The ventilation system is unusable, and the reinforcing timbers are rotting. De Rivera is determined to get as much gold from the dilapidated mine as he can before it collapses, and the native Indians—who happen to be Apache—are used as something very close to slave labor.   

Thunder at Noon is Harry Patterson’s version of a western. It is more adventure than traditional, but the setting and story are wholly western. The language is less eloquent and more realistic than much of Mr Patterson’s work. It is something approaching hard boiled. An early passage describing the remains of a young woman, after her execution by a Mexican cavalry troop, is particularly rich—

“As [the train] began to pull away, the sun crept over the rim of the mountains, slanting across the valley. The scarlet skirt of the Indian girl, as she sprawled face down, was like blood in the dust.”

The desert landscape of Northern Mexico is realistically rendered as an ambivalent, and somewhat menacing, spectator—

“When he opened the shutters the mountain was waiting for him as it had always done, crouching darkly out there in the desert, its jagged spines touched with gold in the early-morning sun.”

The plot is Harry Patterson’s usual smooth and professional job. No gimmicks. No coincidences. And nothing left dangling. It reads something like a mixture of a Zorro story—specifically the corrupt and brutal landowner—and a western film. I was reminded of both the film “The Searchers” and, particularly the descriptions of the desert landscape, of a Shadowlands story by H. A. DeRosso.

The antagonists—and there are many—are portrayed as something like incarnate evil. A band of outlaw Apaches, led by a warrior named Diablo, are especially brutal. They kill and mutilate with pleasure. It is caricature, but caricature effectively used, and used without malice. Mr Patterson’s portrayal of the outlaw Apaches is juxtaposed by his use of an old Apache chief named Nachita as one of the supporting protagonists, and, after a particularly gruesome death scene one of the protagonists, a veteran of the Great War named Steiner, philosophically utters—

“‘On the Western front we maimed men just as neatly with shrapnel and shell-splinters.’”        

Thunder at Noon is both a superb adventure novel, and a much better than average western. It is one of the more difficult Harry Patterson titles to find. It was, to my knowledge, never published in the United States and never released in paperback in the United Kingdom. I was lucky to find it in a 1965 book club omnibus from Man’s Book (sort of like The Detective Book Club in the United States). Its second incarnation as Dillinger is its lesser self, and at its core very different; meaning more than just the name of the protagonist changed.


The Man’s Book edition included a photograph of a young Harry Patterson, and I was unable to resist posting it here.



2 comments:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Great review! Jack Higgins is my favourite author and every time I think I've read most of his novels, I come across one I didn't. His early books were his best. I have always wondered why he didn't bring back Liam Devlin more often. Instead, we have Devlin in only three novels.

Ben Boulden said...

Thanks. I agree that his early books were his best. I've actually been reading his work in order over the past year or so and I have had a bunch of fun watching his development as a writer.

I really liked Liam Devlin as a character. His part of THE EAGLE HAS LANDED was the strongest, and I also have very fond memories of CONFESSIONAL and TOUCH THE DEVIL; although it has been many years since read either.

THUNDER AT NOON is worth finding. The basic plot is that of DILLINGER, but there are enough departures, not to mention it is just enough leaner and stark, to make it worth reading.

Ben