Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Prince Returns

I'd never been much a reader of westerns growing up. Just like with pulps I was sold an incomplete versions of what they were and what they represented about those who read and wrote them. Apparently I wasn't alone in that. Most folk I met simply never read them.

In fact, outside of Louis L'Amour and perhaps a random mention of Lonesome Dove, you will rarely hear anyone speak of them these days. You might get a gritty modern Hollywood film reboot of an old movie or a C-tier spaghetti western comic romp awash with late-90s cynicism, but not often do you get much more than that.

However, since learning about how the pulps were buried and hidden from those who might want to read them I have gone the gamut with adventure fiction. From the fantastic such as Doc Smith and Robert E. Howard to detective fiction such as Carroll John Daly and Mickey Spillane to now westerns with ol' Louis and a firebrand known as Frederick Faust, also known as Max Brand, I have tried whatever I could get my hands on. And they have more in common than you think! 

What they all had in common is their love of adventure and thrilling the reader in as tight a manner as possible. Pure entertainment with a touch of edification along the way!

But of all the names I mentioned above, Max Brand is the one least known today. This shouldn't be the case with most pulp era authors getting constant re-releases even in digital form, but Max Brand's material is mostly gotten from online archive services or torn up reprinted paperbacks from the 1960s. He is hardly the household name he probably should be, and I would say it is probably due to his genre of choice. Westerns don't get much focus these days outside of enthusiast circles.

But his obscurity is also due to his early death.

Frederick Faust died in 1944 at the age of 51. He was a war correspondent in WWII and died from shrapnel. Even at his age he had written somewhere around 500 works for the pulps, 300 of which were westerns, under different names. However, his most well known was Max Brand. Most of his work was reprinted in the 60s, but not so much after that. Despite this, his quality is well known among genre fans.

Even today he is known as one of the Big 3 in westerns with Ol' Louis and a bloke known as Zane Grey. Should you find a western section in your used bookstore you will most likely see those three names. And it is not without merit. All three are quite different from each other, but Max Brand is the one I wanted to discuss.

And from what I've read of the man, he definitely had a unique touch that others I have read in the genre do not. To emphasize this I will talk about one of his books that I have recently read entitled Valley Vultures. It's a short 200 page pulp story that ran in six parts in Western Story Magazine in 1931. Most of his work ran in magazines from time from Argosy, All-Story Weekly, or the western magazines. But this one struck me as particularly interesting.

Valley Vultures is about a place called Dexter Valley where some years ago the Dexter family owned the land and ran things quite well. They had farms, different families living all over, and a prosperous town to boot. Things were looking up!

Then one day a hand named Scorpio turned on them and with help of other individuals in the valley slaughtered the Dexter family one fateful night. Scorpio disappeared, but those responsible for the murders were never caught. Years later a mysterious man returns to town calling himself Charles Dexter (known as Prince Charlie to those in the valley) the lone surviving son from the attack, and he wants what is his. But is he who he says he is? That is but one of many mysteries surrounding what happened that terrible night.

First off the bat is to mention that we are guided through this story by Oliver Dean, a middle-aged city-dweller who is ill and out of it. He comes to the country to get some fresh air and adventure to clear his head and get the cobwebs out, and that's what he gets. Dean is a bit of a practical thinker and he ends up entangled in Charlie's plot from the get go. First we are first dragged into a mystery as to if this stranger is who he really is and question what exactly happened on that night the Dexters were killed. Then we are given hints that there might be more to this town than we first thought. 

The two mains are perfect. Charlie is a man's man: quick to action and a bit reckless, but paired with the quick-witted Dean the two manage to temper each other into forces to be reckoned with. They soon become known all over the valley. We as readers feel that is owed from what we see of them. The pair help make the story work.

As I said, it starts as a mystery of identity, before the revelation that the missing killer from back then might be alive, then it moves into a back and forth between the usurpers and Prince Charlie (If that is who he really is!) before spilling out into assassination attempts, chases, and fistfights. But what makes it all work is how defined every character is and how they interact with the other, even those who are only in a handful of scenes. You can feel the pressure turn up with every decision someone takes or quip someone makes.

Someone once said Brand's work has a touch of Shakespeare, and I personally agree. This story could be performed on a stage and minimal effort would be needed to change anything outside of the action. It is very dramatic and dynamic work. Every character has layers, every action has major consequences, and every mystery makes the world larger.

I spent the entire length of this work on the edge of my seat and turning the pages frantically to see just if our heroes would make it out and if the killers would get their due: and to see what the answers to the mysteries meant! Sure enough the end says a lot about those who soak themselves in evil and what they will do to keep their heads above water. But it was very much worth the wait, and satisfying at that.

Suffice to say this was one of the best books I've read this year.

The most fascinating part of the book to me is that it is more or less completely unknown despite its obvious quality. I have found no reviews online for this. There has never been an adaption that I've been able to track down. I can't even find blog posts mentioning it: for all I know this is the first one ever! Which is a bit ridiculous, to be honest.

For all intents and purposes Valley Vultures has been entirely forgotten, and that is a true shame. This is a book that deserves more. Much like the rest of Max Brand's output it has fallen by the wayside just as the western as a whole has and not been archived as it should outside of random archive sites. But that says little about how good his work truly is.

Perhaps the western is on the verge of making a comeback, just as the rest of adventure pulp is, and I hope it does. There are plenty of exciting adventures to tell in this land of uncertainty and chaos between law and disorder, and many still we have missed along the way. With the pulp revolution in swing anything can happen!

Just like the prince returns to reclaim his rightful place, as in the case of many stories, so must we help him to do so. Justice prevails. Everything must be put right eventually, and soon enough it will. I await that day.

Until then I'm going to go read more Max Brand books. I've got a bunch waiting for me. Thank goodness for used book stores.

If you haven't read Valley Vultures then it comes highly recommended by me. You won't find an adventure quite like this just anywhere!

If you want another sort of adventure, you can always check out Gemini Warrior! Reviews are great and feedback has been much the same. Excitement, wonder, and heroism are just a ahead!

Find it Here!


  1. Excellent review and recommendation! Definitely want to read this book after your post.

    And, I'm just gonna leave this right here.

  2. I highly recommend the Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. He has several western novels as well, but the only one I read is "Gunsights". Quite good.

    His story collection has some real gems, including some classics. It contains the original 3:10 to Yuma story, which is superior by fsr to both movie adaptations.

    Other highlights include "Long Night" and "Blood Money". Leonard is known mostly as a crime writer nowadays but his style translates extremely well to westerns. I highly recommend him.

  3. My grandfather would read a western a week and fall asleep in his chair while reading. I remember a lot of them being Max Brand paperbacks.
    Except for the occasional western themed fantasy or detective novel I haven't read one in a while. Now my interest has been piqued.

    1. I can see Max Brand being used that way!

      This book really made me want to read more from him.

  4. Check out the Roy Glashan's Library. A lot of sweet goodness.

  5. If you're interested, I've written a few articles about Frederick Faust (Max Brand):

    1. I've read some of those. Thanks for the links!