True Grit

'The Killing Shot' stands as Johnny D. Boggs' strongest, purest Western to date

Western scribe Johnny D. Boggs has never shied away from violence. His two most recent novels, Killstraight and Soldier's Farewell, are streaked with gore and clouded in gunsmoke.

But the first-person protagonists who power each of those narratives are young men who imbue the telling of their tales with (dwindling) innocence. In essence, Boggs' celebrated novels typically flirt with the young-adult genre.

However, his latest, The Killing Shot, will most likely appeal to an older generation raised on Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch—or perhaps Raoul Walsh's film-noir White Heat, starring James Cagney.

That's because The Killing Shot is a pure, old-school Western with a borrowed plot that Boggs barely keeps under control, and with terrific if familiar characters who seem to have just exited a casting call in postwar Hollywood. According to the author on his website, an editor at Kensington Books "is a huge fan of James Cagney," and so is Boggs. "When (my editor) asked if I could re-imagine White Heat as a Western, it was a challenge I couldn't resist," he says. "The Killing Shot certainly isn't a remake of that great movie, but the plot and some of the characters were inspired by that 1949 classic."

Inspired by a hard-core gangster movie? No wonder this book is so aggressive.

Like the noir whose premise it remixes, Shot, published under Kensington's mass-paperback imprint Pinnacle, takes a law-abiding protagonist and throws him at the un-tender mercies of vault-robbing cutthroats. In this case, our hero is Deputy U.S. Marshal Reilly McGilvern, whose prison wagon loaded with outlaws on their way to the federal pen is ambushed; his guards are murdered while he's left to die in the Yuma sun locked behind bars. He is rescued by a separate gang who mistake him for a criminal, and McGilvern finds himself pretending to be a nasty killer in an effort to secretly protect two hostages, a mother and her foulmouthed kid daughter—a funny (yet pistol-packing) pipsqueak who owes a debt to the Charles Portis-created heroine in True Grit.

The gang's leader is Bloody Jim Pardo, a man with an uncomfortably close relationship with his mother, and a Confederate sympathizer who lost his brother in the Civil War. Pardo has someone on the inside of the U.S. military, which explains why he knows there's a certain train shipment of guns and a cannon en route to Fort Lowell. Pardo has a plan that involves McGilvern and a nitroglycerinist named Iverson: After the train goes boom, the guns will be sold to the Mexican government at a very high price.

The plot is off the rails, but so are the characters—enjoyably so. The notion that a lawman would go so far as to beat the hell out of other lawmen to remain secretly embedded among rattlesnakes for the sake of a child and her mom is, well, far-fetched.

This is a Western in which the good guy possesses a sense of honor. Boggs conveys motives through pitch-perfect, noir-ish, hilarious dialogue that ripples across the page. Take, for instance, the moment when Pardo cites his reasons for recruiting Iverson to Chaucer, a man looking to wrest away the gang leadership from Pardo.

"Dynamiter," Pardo said. "Paper called him oppo, oppro ..."

"Opprobrious," Reilly said.

"Yeah, that's the word. What's that mean?

"Scurrile," Wade Chaucer answered with a laugh.

Pardo glared. "All right, smart guy, what does that mean?"

"Contemptuous," Chaucer said. "Abusive. One mean bastard. You know, Pardo, the same things the newspapers call you."

In addition to cutting, tough-hombre-speak, Boggs excels at describing the uniquely beautiful, if somewhat brutal, terrain of the Southwest.

The canyon was fairly wide, yet the road hugged the mounds of twisted rocks and boulders on the northern side. The sky was a brilliant blue, which accented the rocky ledges, the closest ones the color of desert sand, but farther up the canyon they turned a deep red, spotted with growths of juniper, the occasional Spanish yucca, and a bunch of dead mesquite trees whose empty, spindly branches reached out like tentacles of some great sea monster.

Ultimately, things go very wrong, and the ensuing violence is bountiful. However, The Killing Shot is a Western in the classic sense, full of living, breathing characters and boasting a story that never sags.

If you're tired of watching John Ford and Quentin Tarantino films on Netflix, pick up this book. At $6, it's an entertainment bargain.