Peter McCurtin - The Sundance Murders (1970, Five Star, 156pp)
In his long career as a prolific paperback writer Peter McCurtin (who has also written under the names of John Benteen and Gene Curry) has ventured through many areas including Westerns, True Crime guides, Mercenary and Detective novels as well as takes on just about every kind of pulp genre excepting Romance (and even then he may have knocked a few of those out under another pseudonym). With the American Indian Movement (AIM) and general native American conciousness and militancy on the rise in the early 1970s it is hardly surprising to find McCurtin among the many in his trade eager to either slag off such developments or to exploit them as a twist on their usual obsessions.
Unlike most of the novelists using this setting McCurtin however seems as genuinely concerned about the plight of Native Americans as he is contempuous of liberals and leftists. The overall tone of the novel echoes that of its central protagonist, a jaded hack sent to investigate a modern day Ghost Dance cult, and it builds nicely as we meet a variety of characters, all with a lethal interest in sparking a race war. Caught between the cult's evil doings and the ravings of a white supremacist rancher McCurtin's patriotic tough guy provides the perfect foil for both left and right wing lunacy. Whilst exploiting the extremes is a cheap way to make your own ideas look reasonable the biggest disappointment with this otherwise amusing thriller is the complete throwaway ending in which the red hand of Peking emerges during a gunfight at the OK Corral. The cavalry riding in to save the day as the hero, waist deep in commie bodies, runs out of bullets is just the icing on the cake.
An obvious cinephile who constantly references films throughout his novels (with often unintentionally comic results) McCurtin is more famous for his Soldier Of Fortune Vietnam Vet novels and Sundance Westerns. As a stand alone this paperback reads as a bit of a pilot for a series that never took off. The character of ex Military Policeman turned crack reporter Berger (who strangely doesn't seem to have a first name) would appear ripe for a myriad of exotic assignments yet McCurtin seems to have laid him to rest following this lone encounter in the Arizonan wilderness.
" 'I thought the Navaho were supposed to be peaceful, not like the Apaches and some others. I know they were great warriors in the old days, but that was nearly a hundred years ago. Even back in my grandfather's time they were farmers and sheephereders."
The Sheriff rolled the cold bottle across his forehead. A lot of desert men like to do that with beer bottles. 'That's because they're smart' he said 'The Navahos are the smartest Indians of all. They managed to survive, such as it is, and now there must be close to a hundred thousand in this part of the country. That's a lot of Indians. Don't kid yourself about the Navahos being peaceful Berger. Behind all that sheepherding they're wild, as wild as ever. Man, you read the papers, listen to the TV. The whole country's stirred up- blacks, Mexicans, college students, mailmen. Everybody's got some kind of master plan. My guess, so do the Navahos.'
'Maybe Jane Fonda's behind it' I suggested.
'I used to like Henry' TC Malcolm declared 'You ever see him in The Return of Frank James. I always did like movies and beer.' " (page 27)
"Peggy Chan took over the bullhorn again. The funny thing was she still sounded giddy. That was the only way to describe her way of speaking, but I had other words for other things about her, principally her politics. Why, I thought, couldn't a gorgeous chick like that stay out of politics? Or, if she couldn't do that, why couldn't she confine herself to the usual stuff- spitting on cops, saying oink to cops, waving her mons veneris at National Guard Johnnies, sticking daisies into the muzzles of M1s carried uncertainly by National Guard Johnnies, burning the Widener library? The usual stuff- like that. " (page 144)