|Vintage Pulp||Oct 2 2022|
Louis Brennan's disaster thriller is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inundated by a flood.
Louis A. Brennan's thriller Death at Flood Tide, first published in 1958 by Dell, has a cover illustration by Bob Abbett, whose work probably needs no introduction. But if he does, look here. This piece is almost on the level of a sketch compared to some of the more realistic scenes he's painted, yet it remains stylistically familiar.
The novel tells the story of Barry Coplyn, who during the flooding of an Ohio town is deputized to help the local police, is tasked to follow up the report of a body, finds a nude woman murdered in a house, and subsequently realizes he's suspected of the murder. If he'd simply been arrested he would have had a right to a lawyer and possibly bail, but as a deputy serving the county he has to obey his new boss or be jailed for dereliction of duty. It's a clever gambit by the sheriff to keep Coplyn close and talking while attempting to gather enough evidence to fry him.
The first murder reopens the file on an identical murder two years earlier, and the sheriff thinks Coplyn committed that one too—which is a realization exactly an eternity too late for the man he railroaded into the electric chair. But he isn't too broken up about finding out he was wrong. Instead, he thinks he can make up for the error by sending Coplyn to die—the other man was poor and black, while Coplyn comes from a wealthy white family. This is supposed to balance the cosmic and sociological scales. All of this occurs against the backdrop of the inundated town, with the flood providing hinderances to police, but opportunity to the murderer.
Another interesting aspect of the narrative concerns slaps of the face. Coplyn slaps his girlfriend Jay Jay twice, then spends the entire book trying to excuse this, with none of his explanations remotely adequate. He even wallows in self pity, claiming the slaps hurt him worse than they hurt her. Jay Jay comes to understand she's being unreasonable and forgives him, which we can't condone, but that's the way it goes in mid-century books. In the end she's key to solving the crimes, not through happenstance or device, but through intelligence and insight, so at least Brennan gave her that.
Brennan remains a solid author in this second outing we've taken with him, after the Ohio frontier adventure The Long Knife—though he seems a bit more sure-footed in the old than modern midwest. The main flaw for us is that we had to work hard to like Coplyn and the sheriff, who both suffer from the affliction of callousness portrayed as manliness. We think compassion and restraint show strength, while cathartic emotions like self-pity and fury show weakness, so we were hoping the sheriff would pay for his frame-up, and Coplyn would fail to get the girl. But neither of those outcomes is a possibility. Even so, Death at Flood Tide is pretty good.
|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.