21 July 2011

Book Review: Dan Barry’s Daughter

Dan Barry’s Daughter (1923)
By Frederick Faust writing as Max Brand

Spoiler Surgeon General’s Warning: Since this novel is a sequel to The Seventh Man, which I reviewed earlier this week, any discussion of its plot will hint at the conclusion of that novel. Although I will try to avoid direct references, indirect inferences are impossible to stop.

Dan Barry’s Daughter was serialized in six parts in Argosy/All-Story (June–August 1923) and published in hardcover from Putnam the next year. Argosy/All-Story serialized the three previous “Whistling Dan Barry” novels, The Untamed (1918), The Night Horseman (1920), and The Seventh Man (1921). That last novel appeared to bring the saga to a definitive close, but a flood of letters from readers demanded more. Faust found a way to continue the story: he moved time forward sixteen years to make Joan, Dan’s tiny daughter and the hinge of the conflict of The Seventh Man, into the main character.

Dan Barry’s Daughter shows the author’s fatigue with the series; he felt he was finished with it, and in places the novel struggles to get its chase-suspense plot moving. When centering on Joan Barry, the novel excels, but when mapping out the adventures of its more standard “man-on-the-run” half of the plot, the novel feels scatter-shot and overly dependent on convenience and coincidence.

The essential problem of a novel that’s an afterthought tag onto a successful series is that it turns into a book-length epilogue. It deals with Dan Barry’s legacy in intriguing ways, showing how in eighteen years he changed into a distant myth. When characters talk of events from the previous novels, such as Jim Silence’s gang, there’s an aura of something impossibly remote, like the Classical Greeks looking back at the Heroic Age. The characters that straddle it, Buck Daniels and Lee Haines, are aging and lonely figures, helpless in the emerging story of Joan Barry and Harry Gloster. Faust also resisted writing a re-cap of the previous novel in the early chapters, instead waiting until the last quarter before Joan learns the truth about her real father.

Harry Gloster is ostensibly the hero, since in the 1920s men were the heroes of Westerns. (And most genres.) My 1976 Warner Books paperback copy of Dan Barry’s Daughter (not the edition at the top, which is a 1959 hardcover, or the 1960s paperback below) has a cover featuring a tough-looking cowboy carrying his gear over his back in the middle of a dust storm with no woman in sight. The back blurb mentions Joan Barry, but only as a complication in the story of Gloster fleeing from the law, almost all of the set-up which occurs in the first two chapters.

Harry Gloster is a hero in the novel, but Joan Barry is the protagonist and the heroine. The novel is about her, as the title explains, and Gloster is a complication in her life, not the reverse. Gloster is a miner whose gets framed for the death of his partners. The true murderer is Joe Macarthur, who gunned down Gloster’s friends when they refused to go in on a deal with him. Gloster finds the bodies, and has no idea who actually killed them, but knows that everyone will assume he’s behind it. He saddles up and heads for Mexico, but doesn’t get far before he meets Joan Barry in the dark outside a dance.

The novel lacks the charging chase momentum of The Seventh Man; Gloster eluding the law feels circular at times, with a muddy “who’s-chasing-who” feeling creeping in. Too much of the story depends on the coincidence of characters running into each other at the right time, which gives the setting a feeling that it’s cramped. One almost absurd coincidence occurs with the minor character of a bank cashier, but Faust’s skill with detailing the minor character’s life in one chapter almost compensates for the ludicrous timing involved.

The villains of the piece, Joe Macarthur and Sheriff Jim Hargess, rarely take center stage; the story does not depend on them. It’s easy to forget for stretches that Joe Macarthur framed Harry Gloster and is also trying to kill him. After a long absence from the story, Macarthur suddenly re-materializes to bring together Haines’s old gang for a bank robbery, when neither the gang nor the robbery had any set-up at all. At this point, Hargess is already out of the novel.

Much more in the foreground is Joan’s struggle with her inner turmoil, her difficult relationship with her foster father, her romance with Harry, and Harry’s friendship with Lee Haines, a friend of Dan Barry’s. Faust even takes a few chapters to step back from the pursuit action and watch Joan tame Lee Haines’s horse, the Captain. These passages expand on Joan’s near-supernatural link to the wild, and give her a connection to her father: Dan Barry’s black horse Satan is the Captain’s sire. They also remind us that Frederick Faust loved horses and could never write enough about them.

Joan Barry is an intriguing heroine who carries the affinity for the wild her father did, one that threatens to make her as much a wanderer as he, unable to find happiness with others. The motif of the wild geese in the sky, which runs through the three previous novels, becomes the tag for Joan’s desires. However, Joan never approaches the animalistic quality of her father, and the balance between “nature” and “civilization” plays on a more standard romance: “Will-she or won’t-she settle with the guy?”

If the story is episodic and the action seeming to run in place, at least Faust finds ways to expand some of the episodes into memorable pieces of poetry. The evening dance, where both Joan and Gloster hover on the edges and end up finding each other through a Spanish melody, feels like a complete story within the novel. It even has its own supporting cast that never appears anywhere else. The romance of dancing around the room, and the tension of a man who refused to give up his dance partner when “tagged” is one of the magnificent set-pieces of the novel—not the sort of suspense you might expect from a Western. The stand-alone chapter about a bank cashier in a moral dilemma, which marks the beginning of the finale, is also a great example of character work and a hook to create more drama.

Dan Barry’s Daughter is the least of the four books in the series, but anyone who has read the first three should pick it up. The hero isn’t anyone fascinating, the villains are ineffective, and the plot movement is herky-jerky, but Joan’s character makes a satisfying conclusion—“memorial” is perhaps the better word—to her father’s legacy. I wish she had a better story surrounding her.