Clifton Adams (1919-1971) wrote over 50 books and 125 stories using various pseudonyms including Clay Randall and Matt Kinkaid. Most of Adams' literary work is westerns although he did author a small number of crime novels. The Oklahoma native and WW2 veteran won two coveted Spur awards for his western novels “The Last Days of Wolf Garnett” (1970) and “Tragg's Choice” (1969). One of his most successful creations was the 'Amos Flagg' series, published between 1964-1969. My first experience with Clifton Adams is “Tragg's Choice,” originally released by Ace and the subject of this review.
With “Tragg's Choice,” I think the most prevalent sentiment expressed by Adams is guilt. It's an overpowering burden that's not only shifted between characters, but a consistent characteristic worn by each personality. Within the dust and grime of dry Texas, Adams writes at a fevered pace, driving these contestants through a blazing whirlwind of deception, greed and violence while carrying a freight-train of guilt. Like Arnold Hano's “The Last Notch” (1958) and Ralph Hayes' “Gunslammer” (1973), “Tragg's Choice” is the embodiment of the perfect frontier tale.
Ten years ago, US Marshall Owen Tragg hunted and killed infamous outlaw Jody Barker. That event thrust Tragg into the national spotlight, eventually leading to his resignation from law enforcement. In the vein of a traveling sideshow, Tragg spent a decade traveling the country as a lecturer, hesitantly donning a flamboyant “rhinestone” cowboy look costume with tassels and strings and re-telling the epic confrontation. This silly (and somewhat fictitious) spectacle paid the bills, but now after ten years, most people have forgotten Jody Barker and Owen Tragg.
Adams first introduces the reader to Tragg's eventual counterpart, a lowly sodbuster named Morrisey. In the opening pages, Morrisey stumbles upon a wounded cattleman. The dehydrated man begs Morrisey to mercifully locate a doctor for his broken leg and to provide water. Once Morrisey realizes the man has $200, he simply camps out nearby and lets the sun slowly do the murdering. Basking in his change of luck, Morrisey plans to travel back to his wife to impress her with his newfound fortune. It's on a stagecoach through the desert that Morrisey meets Tragg.
From here, there's plenty of white-knuckle suspense to be had. Avoiding any potential spoilers, Morrisey and Tragg eventually stumble upon a bounty hunter named Callahan who is chasing after a woman named Jessie Ross. While Tragg is saddled with his past and the grief of killing a man, Jessie Ross is carrying her own emotional baggage arising from turning in her outlaw boyfriend for a share of a rich bounty. Callahan is on her tail hoping to learn the outlaw's whereabouts so he can beat Jessie to the reward. Collectively, the four learn a great deal about each other on this ill-fated trip through the desert.
While my review seems a little incomplete, trust me when I say it's for your own good. This is a western masterpiece and the perfect introduction to Clifton Adams. There's plenty of gun-play to be found within this emotional examination of guilt and greed. I've always enjoyed authors tinkering with the human condition by taking everyday people and placing them in extraordinary conditions - the essence of noir fiction. It is this premise that allows Adams to excel. You won't find many westerns as good as this. As an inexpensive, fairly popular paperback, do yourself a favor and make “Tragg's Choice” your next choice. You won't be disappointed.
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