Friday, November 11, 2016

Trouble Man by Ed Gorman

Former gunfighter (“gunny”) Ray Coyle has put his own gunfighting past behind him, having worked in a Wild West traveling show for the past ten years. His eighteen year-old son Mike, however, hasn’t. At least, not until he’s killed in a gunfight in Coopersville.

Ray carries a lot of guilt over the fact that he taught his son to be a gunny, just before abandoning him and his mother to join the Wild West show. Ray arrives in Coopersville to retrieve his son’s body and to learn the circumstances of his death. He died in a gunfight with Bob Trevor, the son of a wealthy landowner named Ralph Trevor. According to Bob and the only other witness, Bob’s friend Jimmy Clinton, it was a fair fight. The sheriff, Jim Graham, has no choice but to believe the story, but the presence of a deep gash on the right side of Mike’s forehead suggests that there might be more to the story.

Arriving in town on the same train is Harry Winston, “prison-pale and prison-wary,” having just gotten out after serving eight years for a train robbery. His accomplice got away with the money, and Harry never told anyone who it was. But now that Harry’s out he expects his partner—who just happens to be Bob Trevor—to make amends. But Harry also wants to spend time with the daughter he barely knows, so he visits his now re-married ex-wife in the hopes of getting to spend time with his daughter.

We also meet Bob’s sister Cass. She struggles with her anger toward her layabout, screwup brother— and they all struggle with the loss of the oldest Trevor sibling, Don, who drowned in a fishing hole. She also struggles with romantic feelings toward Ray.

Trouble Man builds plot and emotional tension by switching back and forth between characters, as they move inexorably toward their climax. Complications arise as much from characters’ inability to deal with their emotions as from greed or anger or hatred. It’s an unpredictable story, well-told.

As with most of Ed’s work, each character is subject to their own troubles, the product of their own difficult backgrounds and upbringing. There are some deeply painful character descriptions. In Part 3 Chapter Seven, after Jimmy’s girlfriend, a prostitute named Barbara, tells Ray that Jimmy had some good qualities, the narrator muses:

He thought of Mike. He wished he’d known Mike well enough o make the same sort of comments. Mike was his son, but Mike was also a stranger. Coyle hadn’t taken the time to know him as a boy; and Mike hadn’t taken the time be around once he’d become a man.

And from Part 3 Chapter Two, there’s this about Bob:

Then there was silence again, the echoes of his words still in his ears. He felt embarrassed now by his little fantasy of surprising Harry. That was the only way he’d ever achieved anything in his life—by dreaming about it.

In its way, Trouble Man is full of dreaming losers.

In his introduction to The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction, Ed wrote about the first pulp crime novel he ever bought, Death Takes the Bus by Lionel White. Ed was hooked. He explained what attracted him to White’s work:

But ultimately it was White’s people that made me start roaming the second-hand stores for more of his books. None of his innocents were quite innocent and none of his hoods were entirely bad. And none of them had many answers. Life was a curse, White seemed to be saying, and no matter what you did, you never got out with much of anything resembling dignity or meaning.

It’s easy to see why Ed would have responded to White’s work—the sentences above could just as easily be applied to his own work. Here’s a few more lines from Trouble Man, from Part 3 Chapter Ten:

That’s the hell of it with life. The older you get, you realize there aren’t any easy answers. About the time you’re thirty-five, all the easy answers start to sound real stupid.

Ed wrote Trouble Man in a conversational style—the narrator is basically a slightly more cynical version of Ed himself. Occasionally, Ed’s sarcastic voice comes through loud and clear, though. In Chapter Two we get this paragraph:

Colonel Haversham’s All-Purpose Tonic. The very same stuff the Dalton Brothers always drank. And Billy the Kid. And Bat Masterson. Yessir, the very same stuff. A man like Ray Coyle, he wouldn’t lie to you, would he? Of course he wouldn’t. Gimme three bottles of that stuff, Mr. Midget. Or, hell, make it four.

When I read that I smiled. That is pretty much the way Ed talked, in a dry, self-deprecating cadence.

I still can't believe Ed's gone.

Here's another nice review of Trouble Man at Gravetapping.

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