Friday, November 29, 2013

Forgotten Books Rerun: Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick & Zorro

When I was 13 I discovered the paperback series of Doc Savage, Tarzan and James Bond, and my reading habits changed forever.

Before that, I read a lot of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, along with other classics of literature like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. And I remember devouring all the books the school library had by Lester Del Ray (sci-fi) and William Campbell Gault (sports).

But the only books I still have from those days are the Whitman Authorized TV Editions, like those featured here. There are lots of others . . . Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, The Rebel, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Cheyenne, but I chose these three because they were among my favorite shows. And of course, they all had first-rate theme songs.

In nice shape, these are truly beautiful books. They were printed on real pulp paper, with pulp-like illustrations, and cardboard covers coated with some kind of celluloid. As a result, they were easily damaged, and most copies around today have dinged corners, broken hinges and gaping wounds where the celluloid is peeling. In bad shape, they are truly hideous.

Anyway, I loved these books back then. But how do they stand up today? Let’s see.

HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL by Barlow Meyers (1959)

“Barlow Meyers” sounded like a pen name created specifically for writing westerns. So I looked him up, and was shocked to learn that most of his books were aimed at girls. Stuff like Annette and the Mystery of Moonstone Bay, and Janet Lennon at Camp Calamity.

This book is OK. Meyers makes use of all of Paladin’s trademarks - the business card, the chess knight holster, the taste for fancy ladies. The problem is that Meyers' prose is merely adequate. Nothing shines, and Richard Boone’s grim wit surfaces only about four times in 282 pages.

The story is a long, less than thrilling chase. An outlaw has snatched a four-year-old girl and taken off. Paladin follows. And follows. And follows. Bottom line: watch the show on DVD instead.

MAVERICK by Charles I. Coombs (1959)

I did some digging on Charles I. Coombs, and was surprised to learn he wrote very little fiction. Most of his books (and there are a lot of them) are kids’ non-fiction on various subjects.

That surprised me because this is pretty good fiction. The story is familiar: When a prosperous rancher dies, his cattle are rustled and his heirs can’t pay the mortgage. Enter Bret Maverick, an old friend of the family, to save the ranch. To complicate things, he’s implicated in a stage robbery, and must battle both the robbers and a behind-the-scenes villain to clear himself.

The only problem is - Coombs didn’t know much about Maverick. The Bret of this book is sometimes lighthearted, but has nowhere near the wise guy personality he should. Not once does he tell anyone, “My old Pappy used to say…”  There’s no mention of him being a gambler. And despite the image on the cover, he wears Levi’s for the entire book. The only tie-in with the Maverick I know is that he has a brother Bart back in Texas.

My guess is that Coombs was shown the first episode of the series - the only one I can think of where Maverick wore Levi’s (at least for awhile). This would have been just enough to give him a hint of James Garner’s character and speech patterns, but not enough to know what he was doing.

If Coombs had been a real western novelist, I’d suspect he’d written this novel about some other cowboy and simply changed him to Maverick.

Walt Disney's ZORRO by Steve Frazee (1958)

Now here’s a guy who did write a lot of westerns, and it shows. But he didn’t have a lot of freedom with this one. This book is a novelization of the first thirteen episodes of the Disney series. The show, you may recall, began like a cliffhanger serial, with a sequence in which a friend of Don Diego’s father has been arrested for treason by the evil Comandante. Don Diego returns from school in Spain just in time to don the Zorro duds and save the day.

The story is nicely told, but I’m curious how much control Disney had over the book. If I could lay my hands on my VHS tapes of these episodes, I’d check to see if Frazee used Disney dialogue or wrote his own.

The Disney series was based, of course, on the pulp novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. With the release of the silent film version starring Douglas Fairbanks, the book became forever known as The Mark of Zorro, which I recommend highly. The tragedy is that McCulley’s several other Zorro novels and bushel of short stories are dang near impossible to find. Those that have been reprinted are rare and expensive, and many have never been reprinted at all.

The center of the Forgotten Books Universe is, of course, pattinase.


Rick Robinson said...

Yep, these STILL look interesting. Maybe I'll read one sometime, when I'm not so backlogged with other stuff. I wonder how well they sold.

Booksteve said...

Is it just me or does the one gambler on the HAVE GUN cover look more like Bart Maverick than the guy on the actual MAVERICK cover looks like Bret?

Anonymous said...

The guy sitting at the table does look like Jack Kelly as Bart. Maybe it's an intentional in-joke, or maybe the artist just knew how to draw one generic gambler. As for the Maverick book, I suspect that the character of Bret had to be whitewashed, since Whitman books were generally aimed at kids. That may be why there is no mention of Bret being a professional gambler.

George said...

I remember reading some of these when I was a kid. I think I have a copy of the WHITMAN version of BONANZA.

Shay said...

We had one or two -- a Bonanza, if I remember correctly (late enough in the series to feature the David Canary character, "Candy"), and a Wyatt Earp.

Evan Lewis said...

The Bonanza book, if I recall, was late in the series, when the covers were no longer laminated. The Wyatt Earp book was not a TV tie-in, so had a generic cowboy on the cowboy. Whitman did a nice laminated Earp BLB, though, featuring a painting of Hugh O'Brian.

Tom Johnson said...

I still have a ton of those old Whitman hardbacks. Great TV tie-ins.

Cap'n Bob said...

I have F Troop, Combat, and The Rebel within reach, and a couple that must belong to the wife (The Lennon Sisters and Donna Parker). When I was a kid I had Andy Burnett. Cousin Georgie and I used it for target practice with our Wham-O slingshots. To this day I regret it, although it wouldn't have lasted anyway.