Dance with the Devil
By JD March
A book review by Charles Johnson Western Genre
Published by FIVE STAR, A part of Gale Cengage Learning 353 pages
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL offers a firm example of writing in the western genre. We meet all the required elements of such a tale; men of varying moral standing, the life of the ranch hand, the hot weather of a summer in near-desert conditions, and some good action scenes and adventure. The plot moves along with two lines of conflict that keep the reader involved and interested.
A hard-working, honest man (Guthrie Sinclair) who owns a ranch in the 1870s in New Mexico, finds himself confronted with a competing rancher (Chavez) who wishes to take over a neighboring ranch, one way or another. If that means gunplay, then so be it. A son returns (Guy Sinclair) after more than a decade living in the east, where he has served in the military and learned the refinements of urban life of the time. A younger son (John Sinclair, aka Johnny Fiero) also returns, having been taken away at a very early age from the ranch by his wandering mother. He has survived life of living in shacks, being abused, and learning to deeply hate so very early on; that hatred motivates him to hone his gun fighting skills so that he becomes one of the most renowned gunfighters of the period. The Range War between Cortez and Sinclair is ostensibly over water and timber rights of another ranch on which the owner Steen Andersson has died. Other complications arise that make those water and timber rights seem immaterial, including the security and the future of Peggy Andersson, heir to the Andersson ranch. As the range war escalates, the two brothers accept their part in it, each with their own level of commitment and involvement. The honest father observes his sons, approves of one, disappointed in the other. As for the sons Guy and John, though they share the same father, their upbringing in different parts of the country gives them traits that just don’t blend well, despite the efforts of the elder brother to get along.
The Sinclair men are the main characters in the book, each of them with their own characteristics. The dad brings his western stoic, honest nature to the story, the older son brings his cultured training to the ranch, and gunfighter Johnny is clearly the angry young man so often seen is westerns. The local country doctor (Ben Greenlaw) is a good friend of the Sinclair family as well as a fine physician who takes little guff from his patients. Peggy Andersson is the only major female in the book; I wish there had been more of her in the story, and more to her character. The only other woman close to being a major character in the book is Johnny’s mother. We meet her just briefly, much in the same way we meet Johnny’s women of the brothels; and there’s not much a difference between the mother and those brothel dwellers. Several other ranch hands and cowboys appear, offering some more of that western flavor to the book.
JD March, the author, describes the scenery quite well, bringing the reader into the various locations. The descriptions found my mind’s eye, admittedly a product of the 1960s TV westerns, recalling scenes from those TV westerns as I read various sections of the book. The view of the ranch from the hills found me echoing the opening of HIGH CHAPARRAL, the night-time camps brought up notions of GUNSMOKE, with images of Marshall Dillon and a prisoner wait out the night, and the fist fights in the bar brought many more westerns to mind. This is a good thing – it means the author was accurate in describing the scenes.
There are few comical situations. These are mild, not quite enough to function as comic relief in the story. In a few cases where humor works quite well, the two brothers converse, and the Bostonian son Guy uses words that amaze and confuse the gunfighter Johnny to no end.
We learn that the elder son has left Boston, not only at his father’s request to return to the ranch, but to avoid some bad times caused by his own dalliances. What those bad times were are explained, but I felt they could have been detailed more than they were. The younger son’s motivation for his angry personality are better explained, helping the reader to understand him in ways not provided as well for the elder son.
The dialogue is quite well written. The voices of the various ranch hands, the patrons of the bars, and the ladies of the brothels are all authentic. Their language is indeed in the vernacular of the Wild West; with the exception of one word. Our gunfighter Johnny is the only character in the entire book that uses the ‘f bomb’…and uses it quite often; taking away some of the credibility of the dialogue. (One would think that the other rough and tumble cowboys would also use such profanity). In fact, as I researched the ‘f bomb’, it would be fair to say that it is out of place and anachronistic to the time period and setting of the American Wild West. American literature didn’t use the word until the 1920s, and then mostly on the east coast. My suggestion; either have the word appear in conversation of others, or, preferably, don’t use it at all since its use didn’t seem part of the talk of the time and place.
And so, as you ride off into the sunset…
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL carries a good amount of the western genre in some exciting action and clearly written settings. Male characters are quite solid – I wish the women were clearer and stronger – and there’s the language matter I mentioned that pulls this book out of the young adult audience to some degree and strains the credibility of the dialogue in some ways. The novel does, however, offer a good read for fans of westerns as they sit with this book in front of the fireplace and a cup of coffee on the side.