Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ranger Kirk

It’s hard to guess why William Crawford adopted the pseudonym of W.C. Rawford for his 1974 stand-alone western, “Ranger Kirk.” The copyright page says it’s by William Crawford and the book is dedicated to “Robert Gene Crawford, my brother.” Moreover, the pen name of W.C. Rawford isn’t really throwing pseudonym sleuths off the scent. Who was he fooling?

My best theory is that maybe he thought that “Ranger Kirk” was a crappy novel he could unload on Zebra Books - and later Pinnacle Books - without the stench of the paperback following him to his grave. The publication of “Ranger Kirk” also coincided with the debut of his 'Stryker' series, and Pinnacle Books really thought they had a hit on their hands with Stryker (Spoiler: They didn’t). Crawford was also Pinnacle’s choice to replace Don Pendleton as the author of the Mack Bolan series during a time when Pendleton was feuding with his publisher. In fact, Crawford authored The Executioner #16: “Sicilian Slaughter” published under the pseudonym of Jim Peterson, a controversial installment in the iconic series that still has hardcore Pendleton loyalists seeing red.

Whatever the case, I figured I’d give “Ranger Kirk” a fair hearing and see if this good-looking paperback is a lost literary treasure or best-forgotten garbage. The character of Ranger Kirk is Sergeant Tom Kirk, an Old West Texas Ranger with the Frontier Battalion along the Mexican border who approaches his job the way a modern intel officer might. He deploys undercover agents into Mexico to gather information about criminal activity. This clandestine approach to law enforcement makes Kirk an oddity among his colleagues who are more of a shoot first and ask questions later bunch of guys. Moreover, Kirk’s spy operations have been going poorly and three consecutive operatives are slaughtered and mutilated by the enigmatic Mexican crime lord, Tuerto.

As the reader gets to know our hero, we quickly discover that Kirk is a flaming asshole. He’s that friend of yours who starts taking swings at you after he has a few drinks in him. His abhorrent behavior crosses the line one too many times, and he is forced to give up his Ranger badge. This leads to a fairly clever and unexpected series of events that brings Kirk right into the heart of Tuerto’s operational base in Mexico.

When Kirk finally meets Tuerto face-to-face, it’s a surprising encounter. Once again, the author chooses a plot turn quite unexpected and somewhat more satisfying than the typical western showdown the reader expects. Tuerto is a fascinating character, and Crawford should have done more with him. Along the way, there are Indian attacks, a damsel in distress, and the eventual redemption of our hero.

Even with all this, “Ranger Kirk” is a pretty lousy novel. The story never really comes together into anything particularly interesting. The action scenes are poorly-written, and Kirk never turns the corner fully into a likable character. The upside is that it’s a blessedly-short paperback at 160 big-font pages with blank page between each chapter for further padding. In fact, the brevity of the book is the only reason I finished it. Finally, the cover art by George Gross is outstanding, but this paperback isn’t worthy of its own packaging.

Final assessment: Don’t bother.