Friday, August 12, 2022

Gun Hell

Riley Ryan only wrote one novel in his life, but he gained some mileage. His sole novel was a western that began its shelf-life as The Dakota Deal, originally published by Lion Books in 1954. It was later reprinted by Lion Books again as Gun Hell. In 1966, it was published by Tower as The Oath. It was translated into Swedish and released as Blod for Blod. Most recently, it has been published by Cutting Edge Books as Gun Hell and also included in the publisher's compilation Big Bold West 12. Why so many printings? It's an unusual western. 

Johnny Burr makes a habit of burying his guns. In fact, he buries them and then shortly has a revelation and digs them back up. Readers learn he does this a lot. But, Burr is conflicted on what he wants in life. Should he attempt to live a happy existence free from his past or ride the trail for vengeance? That's the conflict that saturates Ryan's narrative.

In flashback sequences, Burr recounts the night that his farm was burned by bandits and his wife was raped and killed. During the attack, Burr sliced the bandit leader on the chest, leaving several deep gashes. These cuts were a mark, and now Burr is hunting for the scarred man. But, he isn't a violent guy, and generally isn't cut from the same cloth as your typical paperback hero. So, it's unique in the way that the hero is weak and discouraged. 

Like most westerns, Ryan uses the old western trope of a range war as the battleground for Burr and the bandits to settle the score. There's the Big Horn and Little Horn ranges, one filled with livestock, but very little water, the other the exact opposite. The range war erupts near Fargo, North Dakota and Burr finds himself employed by both ranches as he hones in on his wife's killer. There's a load of violence at the end, and occasional skirmishes leading to the finish. There's also a romantic relationship introduced that brings Burr full circle – bury the guns or fire them.

If you enjoy range war westerns and unlikely heroes, then Gun Hell should be a rewarding reading experience. It's certainly different, but carries the same traditional staples as the typical mid-20th century western. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

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