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Saturday, August 09, 2014

J T Edson: Trail Boss

(* As a tribute to the late J. T. Edson, who died on 17 July 2014, aged 86, here's an article/interview I wrote about his career back in 1992. It was originally published in Midweek, part of a little publicity campaigning for the upcoming Vintage Paperback and Pulp Book Fair. For reasons known only to the editor, it was published under the title "Happiness Is a Warm Gun". I'm overjoyed to change it back!)

J. T. Edson: Trail Boss

After over 30 years in the writing game, it seems as if J. T. Edson may at last be hanging up his Stetson, shucking his gun belt and taking a break from a career that has seen 128 novels in print. Plus three more already with his publisher, he quickly adds, laughing.

I'm sure he wouldn't thank me for the western style similes, despite the fact that he is an Honorary Deputy Sheriff in Thurston County, Washington, Travis County, Texas and Natrona County, Wyoming (and an Honorary Admiral of the Texas Navy, to boot): softly but firmly he warns me that he hates people who ask him for photographs dressed in cowboy clothing, although as a writer he has been associated with gun slinging adventure novels since his very first ­- Trail Boss ­- hit the stands in 1961, the runner-up in a prize competition offered by Brown Watson, publishers of paperbacks. In fact it was one of three books he had entered, the other two equally quickly accepted by the same firm. There has been no looking back since, as novel after novel flowed from his typewriter at the rate of between six and eight a year, until by 1965 he was dominating the western production line of his publisher. Their response was to keep his books in continuous print, selling out edition after edition and then to 'sell' him to Corgi Books.

Now, at 64, he finds writing at such a prolific rate less appealing, with the publishing market itself hit by recession, and an increasing censorship which he dislikes. "Writing just isn't the same,” he acknowledges. "I'm 65 next year, so I can retire. If I do, it will be because I object to the censorship.”

As a traditional western writer his books have included a broad cowhand humour, of the type that means tall guys are called Tiny and white horses are called N*gg*r, now deemed racist and editorially excised from new editions of his books. The sizeist remarks remain, but for how long? Certainly none of these newly discovered subversive angles to his work worried the fans who made up the members of the Edson Appreciation Society, which he ran with the aid of his secretary for 12 years, nor the visitors to the Second Vintage Paperback and Pulp Book Fair on October 10th where he is a Special Guest. Surprising, perhaps, to those who feel that westerns are purely Boys Own territory, is the fact that over half the membership of the Appreciation Society were female, and all with strong feelings for the characters:

"One of my characters, The Ysabel Kid, spent most of his time killing people ­shooting them with a Winchester or his horse would be kicking them to death. That was the character that got most of the ladies going...” to the degree, he adds, that when he introduced romantic relationships for other members of the Floating Outfit, the band of players who have featured in half of his books, one of his more devoted followers threatened to burn her collection unless. married off her hero to a nicer girl.

His books, however, cannot be described as sexist. Fiery females such as Calamity Jane (nothing like Doris Day!) and Belle Starr figure in his tales as strong leads for their own novels as well as appearing with other characters. And they're not the saloon gals or rancher's daughters you'd expect: "I always thought the ladies had a very bad deal. They were never allowed to do anything except be pretty, do something stupid and get captured,” says Edson. "My ladies don't do that. Anyone grabbing hold of my ladies gets kicked somewhere between the neck and the knee!”

It's the strength of his characters and the detailed historical accuracy of his work that have kept his fans coming back for more, although he would be the first to admit that his work is purely for escapism, with an element of soap opera stirred in for good measure. His characters’ lives are solidly entwined with each other, to the point of continually cross-referencing other tales, the head of the Edson clan's family tree being 'Ole Devil’ Hardin, whose first appeared in Edson's second printed novel, but whose history has been told through his own series, and through tales of the American Civil War, as well as appearing with later members of the Hardin family in the Floating Outfit novels ­ by which time he's confined to a wheelchair.

The Outfit itself was made up of the tall, innocently featured Ysabel Kid, Lon Dalton, dressed all in black with the walnut handled Colt Dragoon revolver, the shorter, more handsome Dusty Fog with his twin pearl-handled Peacemakers, and the six foot three, well-muscled and stylishly dressed Mark Counter. Alongside them rides Waco, Doc Leroy and countless other characters, the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the Hardin, Fog and Blaze families.

Whilst he's best known for the gun slinging, he has also written outside the western genre ­ and even some of the cowboy characters star in novels which are tightly plotted murder mysteries, although his only “straight” thriller was a collaboration with Peter Clawson. He has, however, rescued a number of other literary characters from obscurity, amongst them Mr. J. G. Reeder, created by Edgar Wallace, and the tales of the Tarzan-with-a-twist Bunduki, as well as weaving others into his history and genealogy, from Sir Henry Curtis (colleague of Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain) to Doc Savage, the American pulp hero.

Another series, appearing in the boys comic, Victor, was based on his background as a Dog Trainer in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, having been called up for National Service and posted abroad, first with the Rifle Brigade and later with the RAVC, serving his duties in Germany, Austria, Singapore and elsewhere.

Unable to return home at weekends, it was a period. used to great effect, reading widely and visiting the movies often, as well as being able to talk to firearms experts, all of which have been put to good use in his work. In fact it was whilst in Hong Kong that his first novel was written in the early 1950s: a win at the Bingo was partly used to purchase a typewriter and by the time he left Hong Kong and the RAVC he already had ten novels in manuscript. Via correspondence courses in short story writing he learned little more than how to set out a submission and that there was not much of a market for western short stories. He did, however, hear of the Brown Watson literary competition which was to launch his career.

Over 130 novels later he's now looking forward to the thought of retirement. Over the past few years the market for westerns has been poor, something. lays at the feet of American publishers: "Whatever America does, we follow two or three years later. The rumour went round the American publishers that the western was finished. Nobody checked with the readers¡ About two years ago the British publishers started doing less. It's very hard now ­ in the sixties there were plenty of small firms willing to take a chance with new writers.”

Despite all problems, Edson still retains his enthusiasm for the escapist-adventure type of novels, and his love for the old style movie westerns, particularly those of Audie Murphy. And even with the possibility of retirement looming the urge to write will never disappear. "I'll probably have a flood of ideas,” he threatens with a chuckle. Let's hope it's true, because there will always be a place for the fast-moving, entertaining novels he has provided his fans with for over thirty years.

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