Author David Morrell's 1972 action-thriller “First Blood” was a runaway hit, eventually adapted to film in 1982 and kick-starting the 'Rambo' franchise that's still thriving today. Attempting overnight success, many authors and publishers exploited the idea and began releasing similar novels featuring wilderness pursuits, small town sheriffs and ex-military survivalists. As good as author Brian Garfield is, I've got solid evidence that his 1973 Fawcett Gold Medal novel “Relentless” may have been imitating the “First Blood” literary phenomenon.
Navajo Native American Sam Watchman patrols a 150 mile stretch of rural Arizona with his white partner Sam Stevens. The two receive a call that the nearest town, San Miguel, has experienced a bank heist and Watchman's friend has been killed. The five robbers escape town using a plane, but end up crashing in the Utah mountains during a blizzard. Watchman, Stevens and an FBI agent named Vickers journey into the rugged, frosty wilderness to capture them.
Garfield's presentation is through Watchman and the kindhearted criminal Walker via alternating chapters. The narrative explores Walker's criminal history and how he's involved with a band of ex-Green Berets and $900K in stolen cash. Less is known about Watchman, but the author takes an easy path by creating a riff between the local Watchman and the “city slicker FBI know-it-all” Vickers. Watchman is a lovable, capable and valid hero, yet a lot of emphasis is placed on his unending confrontation with Vickers.
The “First Blood” connection is fairly easy. Walker and the criminals, all ex-military, are the hunted prey instead of Rambo. The “First Blood” small town corrupt sheriff Teasle is noble Navajo State Trooper Watchman. Rambo's intelligent, cunning and somewhat sympathetic Colonel Trautman is the arrogant, foolish FBI agent Vickers. The characters and setting is emulated, just shuffled with reverse roles.
So, the question I ask myself: Is the book enjoyable knowing the author is borrowing from “First Blood”? The answer is a resounding YES!
“Relentless” is a high-speed pursuit complete with rugged adventure, violence, emotional distress and psychological suspense. The tension between Walker and the cutthroats is managed at just the right level, stretching the puppet strings between the characters and their own moral decency. Further, Vickers and Watchman's psychological warfare is an intense chess match that helps deepen the story-line of “country bumpkin versus city slicker”. The action-adventure genre tropes are well established – blizzard, high adventure, plane crashes, car chases, bank robberies, guns and a damsel in distress. It's a playbook that Brian Garfield uses to elevate this simple heist novel into an effective action-thriller.
There are plenty of “First Blood” impostors - some good and some bad. Hell, David Morrell borrowed the concept from Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel “Rogue Male”. Is anything truly original besides “Beowulf”? Probably not. But that shouldn't keep you from enjoying a popcorn paperback like “Relentless”. The novel was adapted as a CBS made-for-television movie in 1977 and Garfield wrote a 1974 sequel starring Sam Watchman - “The Threepersons Hunt”. Both of these novels are still in print today and also exist in ebook format.
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