Last month’s reading was an all-time great spy novel, a treatise on the “Custer controversy” and another of the Louis L’Amour novels I began picking up last month…All proof that the past never ceases to speak to the present and the present never ceases to ignore the past.
Judgment on Deltchev (1951)
Ambler was the twentieth century’s greatest spy novelist. He took John Buchan’s basic premise (ordinary Englishman caught up in larger events he barely comprehends: see The Thirty-Nine Steps) and wound it tighter, gave it more dimension.
Never more than here, in what might be his masterpiece (there’s heavy competition from any of the five novels he wrote between 1937 and 1940). Deltchev was his first novel in more than a decade and his first since the War.
The War had changed things. Though perhaps never as deeply committed as the typical idealist, Ambler had been what was known as a Man of the Left (i.e., pro-Soviet). He was soured by Stalin’s duplicity in his dealings with Hitler and wound up a Man of the West (despite being in his thirties, he volunteered for the Royal Artillery when the War came…as a private). Judgment on Deltchev is his judgment on the police state, one that rings truer and is far more entertaining than say, 1984. Perhaps for that reason, those who had followed wherever Stalin led never forgave him.
History certainly has. On a re-read, I didn’t feel this had quite the tragic weight of Dystopia’s two real stomach-punchers: Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. But it still induces plenty of dread and–given the long arc of history no one could have foreseen with any confidence in 1951–may not be the lesser achievement for ending on a note of earned optimism.
Earned or not, Ambler paid a price. He was a different writer after Deltchev. He had stared into the abyss and the abyss had stared back. The Cold War had changed things, too.
Custer and the Great Controversy (1962)
Robert Utley is one of the great historians of the American West. This is an early work, basically an extended monograph on the cult of celebrity that rose around George Armstrong Custer and had already sustained for nearly a century when this was published.
Utley just about defines the term “sober historian,” so he’s a good man to tackle the legacy of Custer and the Little Big Horn Massacre.
That is was, for decades after, known as “the Custer fight,” is a testimony to Custer’s force of personality, living and dead. Very few commanders get their name attached as an honorific for leading their men into an unmitigated military disaster. The book is not after debating Custer’s military acumen (though Utley doesn’t short-shrift it), but simply detailing the steps by which Custer and his “fight” passed into legend. On that level, it’s hard to imagine a better treatment of the subject. It’s a book by a cautious and fair-minded man, and, despite its brevity, has more than a little to say about the ways in which history and myth are forever destined to shape each other no matter how often we tell ourselves we’re past all that.
Heller With a Gun (1955)
An early effort and solid. I have no idea what the title means. Once I figured out no one named Heller was going to show up, I thought I might run into some old coot saying somebody or other (hero or villain) was “A heller with a gun!” That didn’t happen either so I’ll assume it was implied.
As per usual, the gunman–heller or not–is reluctant to use his gun, or to be drawn into helping tenderfoots (in this case a second-rate theatrical company barnstorming the wilds) who have bitten off more than they can chew and fallen in with bad company to boot.
L’Amour’s style wasn’t yet fully formed. But he could already pack a lot into a phrase:
Then one night when drinking, Forrest bragged. He knew what a reputation could do to a man, but he was drinking and he bragged. A tough puncher from down on the Pecos started hunting the kid to prove Forrest wrong.
They buried the tough puncher on a windy hilltop near old Tascosa...
It doesn’t get any cleaner or swifter than that.
Anyway, the basics are here and well-managed. Notable for a complicated love quadrangle which–against odds I had decided were insurmountable long before the denouement–sustains interest to the last sentence and works out beautifully. Never underestimate a pulp master.