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Monday, 29 March 2010

VALLEY THIEVES by Max Brand - review

I’ve got two editions of this book – recent gifts from Swedish friend Iwan. An American edition, 1933 plus the first UK edition, 1949, and the dust jacket is from the latter. While I’ve read a number of Max Brand books, I haven’t read any of his Silvertip stories, so this is a first for me.

Narrated in the first person by Bill Avon, it relates Jim Silver’s continuing battle of wills and wits with his arch-enemy Barry Christian, in the process of which Silver’s wolf Frosty and his powerful horse Parade are abducted. We also meet the enigmatic Harry Clonmel, another bigger-than-life character.

There’s no indication when the story takes place, though a few references may suggest the mid-1890s. Silvertip’s pal Taxi seems to have a penchant for modern inventions; he owns an automatic pistol (1893) and carries an electric pocket torch (the first 2-candlepower lantern, weighing in at 2lb would make his pocket very heavy; invented 1892; the tubular torch, 1898). The evil Barry Christian has a concealed derringer up his sleeve, operated by elastic; elastic braid or knicker elastic came out about 1887 while elastic bands were around post-1845.

The writing style isn’t particularly great, but Brand delivers on storytelling. Here, he writes about a West where there are good men and true, where even villains seem to possess some humanity. Old Man Cary is the patriarch of a family of bad blood; he’s well drawn and multi-faceted: he reeks evil yet has a sneaking regard for Silvertip.

Silvertip – so called because of the ‘tufts of grey hair over his temples, like the beginning of little horns’ – is not an anti-hero but a mythopoeic hero. As Avon says, ‘… a hero is a property of every ordinary man and because of such men as Jim Silver the rest of us stand straighter. He was a man who had never been found in a cruel, mean, or cowardly action.’ These heroes are necessary, even in this day and age. Too often, so-called heroes espoused by the media have feet of clay. Perhaps there’s a need for more honest and true sportsmen, movie stars and politicians around to set examples to the young. Maybe loss of faith has something to do with it, now our world is overwhelmingly secular and acquisitive. Bill Avon said of Silvertip, ‘His faith in me made me strong. Another man’s faith always multiplies one’s own, I think.’ Self-belief and self-worth grow from the influences of others.

I came away from a relatively simple western tale with these thoughts, which surprised me a little. Brand doesn’t openly preach, but his tales clearly have a moral tone, which may appear quaint these days, and yet perhaps many of his readers dearly wish to go back to those simpler times.

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