Showing posts with label Jim Steel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Steel. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Jim Steel #05 - Gold Train

In 1972, Chet Cunningham was a young, struggling novelist collecting a pile of unwanted rejection slips. Hearing that westerns paid less than other genres, he figured there would be less competition in that field, so he began writing a western. He saw there were quite a few paperback series built around a particular character, so he conceived a hero who could go from one adventure to the next.

He sent the finished novel around, and got an acceptance letter from Pinnacle: “While this is not the best western I’ve ever read, we have decided to publish it.” “Gold Wagon” did get published that year, a story about a fortune in gold which may or may not be hidden in the wreckage of an old convoy of wagons. I’d have to agree that it’s not a world-beater. But it does have some excellent sequences, and I liked it overall.

The best thing about it is its hero, Jim Steel. Originally conceived as a secret agent out west, he’s actually more of an independent operator who goes around looking for lost or hidden caches of gold. He hops from one side of the law to the other, but for the most part he’s a reasonably good guy who just really loves gold, sort of a James Garner character with a relaxed charm and a fast draw.

Oddly, the Jim Steel series only ran for six books, published irregularly over a span of nine years. Yet they were successful enough to be reprinted; I’ve had three different editions of “Gold Wagon”, each under different imprints. Originally published under Cunningham’s name, at least a couple of the novels were also re-issued under the name Jess Cody.

Luckily for me, the first 'Jim Steel' I read was the outstanding ”Bloody Gold”, third in the series and first published in 1975. A highly suspenseful search for a fabled wall of pure gold, located somewhere deep in the homeland of extremely hostile Chiricahua Apaches, it’s a rollicking adventure story worthy of 'Indiana Jones'. I loved it.

“Bloody Gold” set the bar pretty high, and unfortunately the fifth book, “Gold Train” (1981) doesn’t quite get there. A mine owner hires Jim to protect a delivery of 152 gold bars from California to the U.S. Mint in Denver. You might be wondering why he’s hiring the gold-hungry Jim Steel of all people, but this time around Jim is more reformer than rogue. Besides, the paycheck is pretty good and he’s got his eye on the mine owner’s daughter, who’s headstrong enough to accompany him on the dangerous mission whether he likes it or not. 

Inevitably, ambitious crooks will try to grab all that gold, even if it means destroying the train it’s traveling on. What follows is one peril after another, each on a bigger scale than the last. This was a satisfying story, but I think it would have played even better as an action movie than as a novel. There was just something lacking. A more colorful master villain, maybe? Better dialogue? I don’t know. These factors kept this good story from being a great one. Even so, I wish there were a lot more of these 'Jim Steel' adventures left to discover.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Jim Steel #01 - Gold Wagon

Writing as Jess Cody, Chet Cunningham's series debut, "Gold Wagon" (1972) has Jim Steel searching the back trails of Arizona for a disguised Army wagon loaded with a fortune in gold. This first novel in the series isn’t a bad book at all, but it isn’t nearly as good as the third book, "Bloody Gold", so I was still a bit disappointed. The plot is a little skimpy, so Cunningham throws in a lot of red herrings and sends Steel scurrying hither and yon to pad out the length. The first and final few chapters are quite strong, though, and the book always held my interest. While it isn’t an “adult western” in the steamy tradition of 'Longarm' and friends, it’s still got a modern flavor, with a reasonably likable anti-hero who spends the entire novel doing his best to steal a lot of gold from the government. It’s worth reading again, but there are plenty of better books out there.

Jim Steel #03 - Bloody Gold

A superb Luis Dominguez wrap-around cover and the promise of an exciting gold-hunting story prompted me to start reading Chet Cunningham's third 'Jim Steel' novel “Bloody Gold” almost as soon as the mailman delivered it.

Jim Steel isn’t much different from the typical western series hero, except that he’s in the business of hunting for gold (which explains why the word “gold” is in the title of every novel in this series). This is a terrific, suspenseful tale about infiltrating Chiricahua country in search of a fabled wall of pure gold, and along the way Steel tries to find a young woman who’s been recently kidnapped by the Indians. Every time I thought I knew what was about to happen, I was completely and happily wrong.

There are a couple of standout sequences, one involving a character being tortured and killed by the Indians, and the other being the book’s climax in which Jim Steel himself faces a seemingly certain death. There’s a great deal of material about Steel’s wariness and stealth as he slowly penetrates Chiricahua territory, and that creates an atmosphere of dread, although it occasionally drags the pacing just a tad. That’s a minor quibble, though. Considering how obscure the series is, this is a surprisingly excellent western, well worth reading again.