|Vintage Pulp||Apr 8 2022|
The Long Knife portrays human nature red in thought and deed.
None of the westerns we've read since we started this website have been bad, but Louis A. Brennan's 1960 adventure The Long Knife almost had us quitting in the first two chapters. The thing that initially threw us is that Brennan narrates in western language filled with hankerings, gay-larkings, damnations, betwixts, narys, and more. The other westerns we've read had specific terminology, naturally, but were narrated more-or-less conventionally, with the linguistic color coming mostly in dialogue. Brennan, conversely, goes all-in with omniscient frontier voicing: Black as the devil come straight out of hell was Lew, without bothering to change to human skin. He never wore a cap and his hair was char and his buckskins were soot and his face was dead wood from the walnut hulls he'd stained it with for his scout. [snip] His shoulders fit in the doorway as snug as ball and patch in a rifle-gun barrel and his arms hung to his knees. You get the picture. But as we've said before, a good author teaches you how to read their fiction. Brennan's approach slowed us at first, but we soon got up to speed.
The main character is not the monster described above, but another frontier denizen, who moves between white and Indian society, living in the Ohio River Valley woods, something of a legend in his sylvan realm, hunting and wandering where he pleases. He's known by the tribes as “Flash in the Sun” because of his golden blonde hair. Whites know him as Cameron Galway. The plot deals with the machinations of westward spreading whites, and the savage ways of tribes. It begins with Galway's framing and wrongful arrest for murder, his burgeoning feelings for a pretty frontier girl named Meg Farney, his subsequent escape, and the unquenchable enmity of a cruel Army lieutenant named Thornwood (Red Locust to the Indians)—also the man behind the frame-up. When Thornwood suspects that Meg, who he plans to marry whether she wants it or not, likes Galway, hate blossoms into full-scale obsession. He plans to sign Galway off if it's the last thing he ever does.
We like our books to have a sense of real menace, and this one has it by wagonloads. It's dispassionate, utterly violent, continually shocking, and hard to read in parts, not because of the bloodletting, but due to Cam Galway's rigid aplomb as he goes through experiences that would emotionally cripple any normal man. Probably readers of a modern mindset will wonder whether Native Americans have a problem with this book. We don't generally presume to speak for others, but sometimes the answer is clear. The answer must be yes. The tribespeople here—mostly Shawnees—have no emotional depths beyond anger and ambition. We suspect that the people of those times were just as emotional as modern people, or at least were as prone to the same range of expression, but this is western literature, and pure grit is what readers want. There's plenty of that. The Long Knife is filled with hard, hard men.
Louis Brennan was a professor of archaeology, and presumably knew his history too. What seems very accurate here is the lack of conscience within military men and high ranking settlers. Thornwood/Red Locust at one point promises a Shawnee chief a barrel of whiskey and a barrel of beef if the tribe refrains from attacking his two-thousand acres of land for one year. The chief loves the deal. Only a single advisor thinks it's a foolish bargain: “You will not get one barrel of whisky nor one beef. Before it is time to pay, this Red Locust will lead his soldiers against our village and there will be none left to drink and eat.” The Shawnees are smart and even devious, yet distressingly naive, as they try to somehow forestall the advance of a culture that values endless accumulation and possesses neither moral scruples nor concerns about taking native lives.
Some of Brennan's scenes leap from the page. At one point Galway agrees to what he thinks is a one-on-one fight to the death with his Shawnee rival Catfishjaw, only to find that he's to face five knife-wielding braves—with no weapon of his own. They surround him and the resulting melee is brutal. This is a tale conceived by someone who was respected in a history-adjacent academic field, wrote noted theoretical papers that touched on American pre-history, and set his novel in the region of Ohio where he'd been born. Brennan puts all those aspects of his background to good use. On the minus side, the long final act, a frontier judicial proceeding that lasts chapters, drains the energy from what we expected to be a crackling climax. Even so, if you're willing to set aside the built-in racial issues of western fiction, The Long Knife is a good example of the genre, an intense portrayal of conflict in a land where the most savage man usually wins.