Robert Hale, Ltd. (2010)
A Black Horse Western
This review is from an early manuscript version.
When Arkansas Smith arrives at Will McCord's two-room home, he finds a terrible scene. The house was ransacked and partly burned. Worst still, Will, an old friend and fellow Texas Ranger, is barely alive with a gun shot to the belly. And while Will seems to think that rustlers were responsible for the devastation to his property and for almost killing him, he does mention the name "Lance," before falling into a feverish sleep, and when Arkansas goes into Red Rock to get provisions and find a doctor, he hears that name again and begins to wonder about Will's rustler theory. Then the doctor goes missing after tending to Will.
Thus is the beginning of ARKANSAS SMITH, a suspenseful tale that keeps the reader riveted despite the simple story line. Arkansas finds that this "Lance" is actually John Lance, a greedy landowner who is bent on taking over Will's land and has the documents to show that he is the rightful owner. Seems that whoever shot Will thought they had killed him, eliminating the final obstacle to obtaining the property. Arkansas has his own secret weapon, however -- literally in his own pocket. There's an alcoholic sheriff who has sold out to Lance and knows that he has lost his soul. There are the usual suspects and hangers-on and a mysterious and pretty young woman who makes the usually hardened Arkansas uncomfortable and unsettled.
It all works, though, because of Arkansas Smith, a character that is complex and fascinating. He was born in a field full of corpses after a hellish Indian massacre, his mother giving birth before succumbing to her wounds. He is rescued by a couple who take him home to raise him. Then his adoptive father dies when he is ten years old. But even though Arkansas was raised by his loving adoptive mother, the harshness of their poverty and the hostility of the landscape is oppressive.
For those who have read Jack Martin's (a pseudonym used by Gary Dobbs) first book The Tarnished Star and who have read my review of that book, you know that I am a fan of his work. Perhaps because he is a minimalist, which I fancy myself to be as well. I also consider Dobbs a friend, but that plays no part in my saying that this second book is just as good as THE TARNISHED STAR, if not better in its character development.
There is a sadness about Arkansas Smith that I found unsettling and yet compelling. He has a "void deep inside himself that felt on times like a cavity in his soul. It was a need for identity that would always be there and would never be fulfilled." He's a man of few words and when he smiles, it's a grim smile that hints at a lot of tragedies played out in the past. He is an enigma who keeps his personal history to himself and who doesn't offer up too many explanations. While we are caught up in the dilemma at hand, we are never allowed to forget that we are dealing with a mysterious man here who has a few bones to pick with the world. In the post-modern world, he would be diagnosed as clinically depressed. In the 19th century western, though, he's simply trying to deal with the hand that's been dealt him.
Martin shows skill in allowing us to get inside Smith's head - but only so far. We'll think we know him as a stoic man who is all business and then he'll go off and kiss the girl on the cheek, leaving us to think, "Who IS this guy?" Martin also knows how to carry a story through realistic dialogue and so the pages fly by.
This is a quick read; in fact, I wish that some of the story had been fleshed out a little bit more. But then, like Arkansas Smith, I have a feeling that Martin is holding his cards close to his chest and will deal them out to us as he sees fit - in a sequel or a series perhaps, which hopefully will be soon.