Friday, February 5, 2010

Forgotten Books: Doc Dillahay (aka Six-Gun Doctor) by Paul S. Powers

Looks like a western, doesn't it? Nope. It’s historical fiction. And the title is not really Six-Gun Doctor, it’s Doc Dillahay.

True, the story does take place in turn-of-the century-Arizona. There are ranchers and cattle, and guys in cowboy hats running around with six-guns, and the author had spent 15-odd years writing shoot-‘em-ups for Wild West Weekly, but still - this is historical fiction. And damn good historical fiction, to boot.

Paul S. Powers, as you may know from previous posts here or on Laurie’s Wild West, or from the memoir Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, was one of Wild West Weekly’s most popular fictioneers. I’ve read two collections of those stories, Kid Wolf of Texas and Desert Justice (featuring his character Sonny Tabor), and found them great fun. But they did nothing to prepare me for Doc Dillahay.

Those Wild West Weekly stories, you see, were aimed at 15-year-old boys, which goes a long way toward explaining why I like them so much. But Doc Dillahay is a whole ‘nother critter. This is real fiction, written for grown-ups, and Powers did a masterful job of it.

The blurb on the paperback cover is accurate: A smashing, true-to-life novel of Old Arizona! There’s more of the true-to-life, day-to-day life of the Old West here than I recall finding in any other novel. Powers had been living in Arizona a long while before he wrote it, and obviously soaked up an amazing amount of factual lore.

Our protagonist, John Dillahay has been away at school, and just returned to his folks and family in Yucca, Arizona, where he takes on the job of schoolmaster. But he soon falls in with the town doctor and discovers his true calling. He wants to be a doctor himself. The first half of the book is about him growing into that role and preparing himself for medical school. After two years of schooling (mostly offstage), he returns home to practice, and finds he has still more growing to do.

Along the way, Powers displays an amazing knowledge of frontier medicine (as practiced by Dillahay’s mentor) and new-fangled techniques Dillahay is exposed to at medical school.

Since Powers was primarily a short story writer, there are many fine short stories woven into the plot. This makes the novel somewhat episodic, but it all ties together in telling us the big story, which is how Dillahay overcomes all challenges to achieve his goals.

Oh yeah, he’s good with a gun, hence Six-Gun Doctor, but he rarely uses one, and it hardly matters. Despite the hype on the back of the paperback (which you are encouraged to click to enlarge), this book has a lot more going for it than HOT LEAD.

Powers’ memoir in Pulp Writer ends before the publication of Doc Dillahay, but Laurie Powers fills us in on the rest of the story.  After Wild West Weekly shut down in 1943, Powers was a man without a market and tried various types of magazines with sporadic success. And he started writing Doc Dillahay. The book was published in 1949 to good reviews, and he began work on a sequel, The Young Dillahays. Sadly, the publisher was not happy with the first few chapters, feeling that it “strayed too far from the accepted western pattern”, and Powers abandoned the project.

Even then, they just didn’t get it. Powers had grown as a writer. He was no longer writing shoot-’em-ups, but historical fiction. I wish he’d written more of it.

Though Powers' passed on in 1971, his career is still going. A never-before-published tale appeared recently on Beat to a Pulp, and another has been accepted for the upcoming Beat to a Pulp print anthology. 

My earlier reviews of Kid Wolf of Texas and Pulp Writer are HERE.

ADDED ATTRACTION: Laurie Powers has kindly agreed to post the dust jackets for both the U.S. and UK editions of Doc Dillahay today over at Laurie’s Wild West. Do not fail to bop over and take a look.

And for links to more Forgotten Books, visit Patti Abbott's pattinase.


Unknown said...

"Even then, they just didn't get it." What a shame that was, and is. I enjoyed the Beat to a Pulp crime short and will be looking forward to David and Elaine's print anthology. And, of course, anything else Laurie can get into print.

David Cranmer said...

It is very satisfying to see Paul's star on the rise after all these years. But talent is like that--you can't hold it down.

Richard Robinson said...

Another great review, Thanks, Evan!

I really have to take the plunge and try to read more western/frontier fiction. I have a couple of things here I could pick up if only I'd remember to do it when I was between books (which is usually about half an hour). This one sounds pretty interesting. My first reaction seeing the cover it was to think Dillion...Dillahay...that can't be a coincidence. Then I saw this is historical fiction. Still... Perhaps he should have tried to publish the second book under a pseudonym with another publisher, even an academic press.

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Dave for such a wonderful review. I agree with all of your comments. My grandfather's knowledge of medicine obviously came from his father's background. Another thing that struck me when I first read the book was its forward thinking on the subjects of alcoholism and venereal disease - you didn't see that too much in 1940s popular fiction.

Richard, the name Dillahay was his grandmothers: Susan Dillahey. I always thought it was unfortunate he used it because it was too much like Doc Holliday...but then that's just me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This name has become special to all of us.

George said...

I'll be searching for this now. Wonderful review!

Todd Mason said...

I suspect that you tread on some toes, Evan, when you make such a distinction between westerns and historical fiction. (And, for that matter, while your cited WWW stories might've been kid stuff, that magazine eventually grue up, too...and wasn't any worse for it...)

Evan Lewis said...

I hear what you're saying, Todd. I of course like westerns, old and new, and on average the writing being done today is far more literate and sophisticated than that of 1950. Under the broad definition of a western, it can be any story set west of the Mississippi between and within a certain time frame. But I think there's more to it than that.

To explain what I feel differentiates historical fiction from western fiction would require a lengthy essay. And I don't mean to imply that one genre is superior to the other - they're just different. For now, it's simply something I feel in my gut. When I read a story that is clearly one or the other (such as this one) I know it.

Another example of a story marketed as a western - but by my definition actually historical fiction, is Lance Howard's "Billy" from A Fistful of Legends, reviewed here earlier this week.

Richard Robinson said...

Interesting. By your definition, Evan, of west of the Mississippi, what, then, are books set in the frontier years of the western expansion east of the Mississippi, such as he Leather stocking Tales?

Evan Lewis said...

Good question, Rick. "West of the Mississippi" is one of the generalities some publishers use to define the genre. I'm working on a piece of set in the East, but suspect publishers will consider it a western anyway, because it, like the tales you mention, has Indians in it. A prime example of an eastern non-western marketed as a western anyway is my favorite L'Amour novel, Sackett.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, there are lots of Easterns...Conrad Richter's THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST...Fenimore Cooper's famous bad novels...

Juri said...

And Richter's novel Todd mentions is an excellent one, too.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've been looking for a copy of this forever. I'll find one someday soon.