Monday, January 13, 2020


With more than sixty novels to his credit, Frank O'Rourke (1916-1989) was an accomplished writer of mysteries and sports fiction. Arguably, he's best known for his gothic-tinged western paperback originals, stories at which he excelled.

His work was adapted for the screen at least twice—The Bravados in 1957—starring Gregory Peck and Joan Collins, and A Mule for the Marquesa, which was film as The Professionals in 1966—starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Jack Palance. In the 50s and 60s, he turned out at least two westerns a year under his own name and pseudonyms, including Kevin Connor, Frank O'Malley, and Patrick O'Malley.

To say that O'Rourke worked in a time of literary transition is an understatement. Two World Wars had chopped away the early 20th century's Victorian values, clearing the way for a rush of moral relativism and jaded introspection. 

The slick magazines had little to do with flowery melodrama and a lot to do with tight, terse, prose echoing the anxiety of the day, a style that spilled over into the emerging world of genre paperbacks.

What was glamor for the pulps seemed corny and out of touch, and the purple prose of old westerns became downright unsalable. O'Rourke walked the grubline between literary styles, which is clearly illustrated in his 1955 novel, The Big Fifty.

Falling somewhere between his 1953 novel Latigo— wordy land grab procedural—and 1957's The Bravados—an action-packed manhunt—The Big Fifty retains the romantic language of its predecessor while hinting at the complexity of character and action of the latter book. However, whereas The Bravados made a heart-thumping motion picture, The Big Fifty would only have made a nifty Poverty Row Saturday matinée.

The story takes place in 1878, already the end times for the grand buffalo hunts of yesteryear.  Old Colonel DeLight can see the writing on the wall. Not only have the thundering black herds been whittled down to near extinction, but the market itself has lost most of its honor. Rather than face the near impossible prospect of scraping out a messy, gut-wrenching living from acquiring their own hides, bad men simply steal from the few remaining good guys—sometimes with deadly consequences. 

Not only does Old (always Old) Colonel Delight suspect hes been a victim of one of the most notorious thieves of all, he believes big Jan Schmidt murdered his son. To learn the truth and bring the big villain to justice, Old Colonel Delight decides to infiltrate Schmidt's hunting party. Too sick to do the job himself, and rightly convinced Schmidt would recognize his hired man, Lance McGowen, the withered Confederate gray-beard calls in a Yankee named True Benton.

When names like Old Colonel Delight and True Benton are stated in full each time they appear in the narrative, you know you're in for some prose on the lower end of the color spectrum. Naturally, OCD has a lovely daughter (Celia) who Lance wants to wed.  As expected, she only has eyes for our hero, True Benton.

Left there, The Big Fifty might be relegated to the Max Brand/Zane Grey rip-offs of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but O'Rourke's genius pulls it to a higher level. He does this mostly through depth of character, but also by using his working knowledge of hunting and butchering bison.

The book takes its name from the fifty-caliber rifle slugs the hunters use to harvest their animals, and spends a good amount of time describing the life lived by hide-dealers at what was the end of the 1870s, a controversial era. A few pages aren't for the squeamish, but it’s clear both True Benton and Jan Schmidt recognize the moral dilemma of their work, and lament the passing of the buffalo. These aren't callous men with no regrets.

O'Rourke cleverly paints three-dimensional portraits of heroes and villains, both caught in time, both struggling with inner demons, both finding common ground with one another. It's this mutual respect that the author exploits so well. 

When the inevitable climax occurs, when True Benton's betrayal comes to light, its a heartbreaking revelation for everybody involved, including the reader. Dont misunderstand, Jan Schmidt deserves what he gets, but like so many of the post-war paperback villains, you're not necessarily happy to see him get it—satisfied, maybe, but not happy.

O'Rourke is always a solid writer who rarely phones it in, and with The Big Fifty he delivers a thought-provoking piece disguised as an old-fashioned oater.

Best Purple Prose: Her mouth was wide and full and alive, her hair clubbed up behind her ears. With tiny curls about the temples that shone in the candlelight, with the blackest of black, with ebony tints even deeper than black. She met True Benton's gaze with a sober nod and dignified silence, but remained beside her father in the few moments it took True Benton to see so much and wonder why her kind came but once in a man's lifetime; and then he recalled his situation and his manners.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. One of my favourite western authors, FRED GROVE, wrote a couple of gritty westerns with the rarely-used background of buffalo hunting - THE BUFFALO RUNNERS and BUFFALO SPRING. The latter seems similar in content to THE BIG FIFTY, as it deals with how hunters faced with the extinction of the herds fall to desperate means.