"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

High Vermilion by Luke Short

Luke Short in fine form

The novel High Vermilion was first published in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. It is a typical and typically good Western tale by Luke Short – the pen name of Frederick Dilley Glidden (1908 to 1975).
Frederick D Glidden (Luke Short)
Luke Short westerns often concentrated knowledgeably on a particular aspect of the West such as cattle droving, freighting or, as in this case, mining. High Vermilion tells of an assayer, Larkin Moffat, who has settled in the mining camp of Vermilion, somewhere unspecified in the West, probably Colorado, and has a murky past which he keeps quiet. Inevitably, his past comes back to haunt him when a former adversary, Charlie Storrs, now married to Moffat’s former flame Josephine, arrives in the camp and reveals Moffat’s identity and shameful past.

There follows a story of skullduggery as ruthless town boss RB Jarboe and his thuggish henchman Bill Taff try to get their hands on the big-strike silver mine of decent Dutch Surrency, and Moffat sides with Dutch. Of course Dutch has a pretty daughter, Candace, so the scene is set for mucho jealousy between the old and new amours of Moffat.

There’s a spectacular fistfight in the saloon as well as back-shooting, sabotage and ambush, so we have action a-plenty. Accompanying this excitement is the anguish of the hero as he struggles to come to terms with his past, shake off the shame and start a new life. Of course we discover that his past actions were not after all as bad as all that and were really caused by Josephine…

Short’s stories were, probably expressly, cinematic and lent themselves well to Hollywood. High Vermilion was not, in fact, filmed but many of his other books were and High Vermilion would have made a tight little Western movie, maybe with Randolph Scott as Moffat. Other books became fine Western films such as Vengeance Valley, Ramrod, Coroner Creek and several more.

Short writes well, in a slightly staid 1940s way. His style is not lurid and the books are a cut above dime novels. They became very popular in the 1950s, in Bantam editions with rather racy covers, and this has led some readers to consider them Western pulp fiction but in reality they are solid, tightly-constructed and well-written Western stories, much like quality 1950s B-movies of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher type, and they are well worth a read.

Pulp Bantam editions but the books were better than that
One positive aspect of Short's westerns is that his women are all tough, intelligent and independent individualists and not the stereotypical saintly schoolma'ams or slutty saloon gals of Hollywood Westerns. Short/Glidden's mother was an English teacher and college Dean who brought him up after her husband, Short's father, died when their son was 13, and she must have influenced his approach to women - as well as his literary competence.

Glidden was an interesting man who graduated in journalism and wrote for several newspapers but also trapped in Canada and worked as an archaeological assistant in New Mexico. He knew the West and was an avid traveler and reader. His books are slightly formulaic, I guess, but they are all exciting, well-told tales with an authentic ring to them. High Vermilion is no exception.

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