Vanderbilt scholar Merle Constiner was a pulp detective and western writer from the 1940s through his death in 1979. In the 40s, Constiner’s characters Dean Wardlow Rock and Ben Mathews were featured in the detective magazines, which later would also feature the writer’s ‘Luther McGavock’ series of stories. In the 1950s, Constiner had journeyed into the western genre contributing books for Ace. His last novel, “Steel-Jacket”, was released as Ace entry 78580 in 1972.
The book introduces us to 19-year old Joe Fugate, a rough-shod orphan that grew up on the streets. The opening chapter explains that Fugate is passing through Oklahoma after looking for work further south in Arkansas. He rides upon Mr. Dennis and his daughter Amy traveling by wagon to Stinson County, Oklahoma. Amy explains that her father purchased a ranch called Flying 8 and the two are off to live there and raise pigs. Fugate explains that the trek could be dangerous and Amy asks him to accompany them. Mr. Dennis refuses the offer and Fugate soon rides upon them again, only Mr. Dennis has been murdered and Amy is shooting at two killers.
In a rather nonsensical fashion, Constiner attempts to detail a strange transaction between owners of the Flying 8 and the Dennis family. Loosely, Mr. Dennis saved $15,000 in gold only to throw it away on a fraudulent letter he received from an unknown source. The letter explained that if he paid some mysterious train passenger the money, he could take over ownership of the ranch and live out his merry life as a pig farmer. It’s far-fetched to think this man saved money for half his life only to throw it away so easily. Fugate decides he will lead Amy to the ranch safely and resolve his own suspicions about the Flying 8. Along the way the two meet characters along the road, sleep in various towns and generally just waste the reader’s time. Eventually (and painfully), the two discover the mystery behind the ranch ownership and why killers were after Mr. Dennis.
It’s easy to recognize Constiner’s love for mysteries and detective work. “Steel -Jacket” is really a “who’s who” sort of story but jacketed (pun intended) inside the cloak of western fiction. There’s a couple of very quick action sequences but nothing that would quench the thirst of die-hard western fans. Aside from that, the book reads more like a young adult tale with both Fugate and Amy being very young and displaying “unexperienced” characteristics. It was the author’s last work and it’s fitting that his closure was this book’s rather tidy finish. I won’t revisit this one again.
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