Appeared in: Western Story Magazine (serialized) February – March, 1930
In the fictional town of Wham, Texas, Harry Destry is a hard-drinking, hard fighting, irresponsible lout who likes nothing more than brawling and chasing after his ‘best girl’ Charlie Dangerfield. When he is found spending large amounts of money and whooping it up in a saloon after the Express is robbed, he is immediately fingered for the crime and convicted by a jury of locals who despise him.
Serving six of a ten year sentence, Destry returns to Wham a broken man who will not even lift a finger to defend himself when pushed around. Distraught, Charlie breaks off her engagement to him. Thinking themselves safe from his wrath, the twelve jurors begin to relax. But they have sorely underestimated Destry and by the time they realise his meekness is just a sham, it is too late as he begins hunting them down, one by one.
This isn’t any old by-the-numbers revenge plot. Destry doesn’t just gun ’em down. He tricks them, lures them and exposes them for the crooks and cowards they are, proving that he has more brains than anybody ever gave him credit for. His stint in the slammer has also changed him morally. After killing one of the jurors (in self defence) he is overcome with emotion. He grew up with these men, went to school with them, and Max Brand gives us a thoughtful discourse on small town feuds and the futility of violence.
Max Brand was the pen name for Frederick Schiller Faust; perhaps one of the most prolific writers of all time. Under about 19 different pen names he wrote over 500 novels. Westerns were his main output but he also created the character of Dr. Kildare. 12 Peers has become one of his most famous novels. It was republished in paperback as Destry Rides Again and inspired several movies of the same name. The first came in 1932 and only loosely follows the basic plot. The more famous version came in 1939 and starred James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich but bore no resemblance to Brand’s novel. A remake of this called Destry appeared in 1954 and a short-lived TV series (also called Destry) followed in 1964.
Choosing a few quintessential pulp western stories is no easy task. There were over 200 western pulp magazines and literally thousands of stories put out between 1920 and 1960. Writers such as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Bill Burchardt, Frank Gruber, Elmore Leonard, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short and Louis L’Amour all enjoyed great success in the pulps, and those are just some of the really good ones. Long-running series were constructed around characters like Walt Slade and Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, often penned by teams of writers under a house pseudonym. With series entries numbering in the hundreds along with all the great stand-alone novels that are now considered classics, picking a select few westerns that stand tall over the others ain’t easy!