With Borden Chantry, Louis L’Amour tries his hand at a mash-up of the Western and Who-done-it genres, with risible results. Read this one quickly, if at all, and don’t burn any brain cells trying to figure out the plot. L’Amour was old, rich, and famous when he published this novel in 1977, and you get the impression that he frankly didn’t care whether the story made sense or not. He knew his fans would buy it anyway.
The setting is a town somewhere in southeastern Colorado, with the date being, as best we can guess, the early 1880s. Our title character is twenty-four, but a lot has happened to him in his short life. He is married, he has a young son, and he is living in town because he’s broke: a “norther” killed off all the cattle on his range. As a result, Chantry is doing the only job on offer, town marshal.
As is the convention with murder mysteries, we meet all of the suspects in the first chapter or two. There are early warning signs, though, that L’Amour is not at the top of his game. Louis always deals in archetypes, but the characters in Borden Chantry are such stereotyes that it flattens the whole novel. There is the madame with the golden heart, the greedy banker, the model Mexican minority, the nosy town gossip, the town drunk, and, most painful of all, “Big Injun,” a cringe-worthy sidekick whose moniker tells you everything you need to know. We don’t even get an appealing leading lady. Instead we get Chantry’s wife, Bess, whose appearance L’Amour never describes and who spends the novel worrying about Chantry’s safety and badgering him to move back to Vermont and take up farming. A bland and carping love interest? We expect better from L’Amour.
Until a murder occurs on Chantry’s watch, the job of town marshal makes few demands on him, and we hear that the local citizens think he’s doing a heck of a job. This is odd, considering that Chantry has inherited two unsolved murders which seem to trouble him not at all, including that of Chantry’s predecessor as town marshal. Chantry is roused from his stupor by the discovery of a dead man in the middle of Main Street early one morning. Three murders being too much to ignore, Chantry spends the rest of the novel solving the crimes.
It barely merits a spoiler alert, but the dead body turns out to be that of Joe Sackett, the youngest of the five Sackett brothers whom we met in The Daybreakers. Poor Joe: he was just a whelp in The Daybreakers, and now he’s just a corpse in Borden Chantry. It is Joe who is the main source for approximating the year in which the action in Borden Chantry occurs. In our analysis of The Daybreakers, we estimated that Joe was born around 1853. In examining the corpse, Chantry describes Sackett as “maybe thirty years old, could be younger or older.” This suggests that the events in Borden Chantry occurred in the early 1880s, thought that’s little enough to go on.
A dead Sackett is not a bad set up for a murder mystery, but L’Amour can’t get anything right. One of the rules of the genre is that we need to see the action only from the eyes of the person trying to solve the mystery, but L’Amour breaks the rule at least four times in Borden Chantry, and each time it grates. For example, in Chapter Seven he recounts a conversation when Chantry is not present for the sole purpose, it seems, of allowing L’Amour to bloviate about the importance of law and order in a chaotic world. A little philosophy from Louis is always welcome, but this is way too much. We have to wade through two pages of civics lessons before getting back to the action: “That young man is all that stands between us and savagery. He’s the thin line of protection . . . . Laws are made to free people, not to bind them—if they are the proper laws. They tell each of us what he may do without transgressing on the equal liberty of any other man.” On and on it goes. We get it, Louis, and we agree. Can we get back to the story, please?
Another rule of the mystery genre is that all the clues and loose ends need to be tied up in the end. Tying up loose ends was never L’Amour’s strong suit, to say the least, but L’Amour got sloppier as he got older and more successful. By 1977, when he wrote Borden Chantry, L’Amour was 69 and any discipline he might have had around internal consistency, fact-checking, and the rest seems to have disappeared altogether. In some cases this carelessness is amusing or mildly annoying, such as when he describes the color of the gunfighter Boone Silva’s eyes in three different places as, respectively, “pale blue eyes . . . kind of a glassy look to them,” “blue-gray, flat-looking eyes that revealed nothing,” and “black eyes no longer flat and dull.” Or when Chantry muses that, as far as he knows, the killer “had never missed a shot,” even though he had missed two shots at Chantry himself a few days earlier. Then there’s the backstory of the golden-hearted madame, who nursed several men through a smallpox epidemic in a Nevada mining camp a few years back. Smallpox? The smallpox vaccine was widely distributed in the US by the 1850s, so an outbreak in Nevada seems far-fetched. But never mind; a few chapters later L’Amour changes it to cholera anyway.
Inconsistencies like the foregoing are pretty typical for L’Amour. But when the author creates gaping plot holes in what is supposed to be a taut murder mystery, the reader eventually loses heart. Go ahead and try to create a coherent timeline of the events in Borden Chantry. Good luck to you. For example, try to reconcile the fact that, on the night Joe Sackett is killed, Chantry is tracking down the man who stole Hyatt Johnson’s horses, with the fact that Johnson’s horses could not have been stolen until Sackett was already dead. Then try to explain why Chantry’s gallant recovery of the stolen horses never comes up in his conversations with Johnson, or why Johnson treats Chantry with disdain throughout the book.
Here’s another one. Chantry figures out that Sackett fought off two local thugs who tried to rob him, barely skinning his knuckles in the process. But Sackett is only in town for a day before he is killed, and there is no point in the timeline where this altercation could plausibly occur. Furthermore, the fight serves no purpose to the plot, and we only hear about it in passing, so why even include it? But then, why quibble about such a small extraneity when there’s a whole chapter in which the action has absolutely no bearing on the plot? In Chapter Fifteen, Chantry finds himself sealed in a mine by a booby-trapped explosion. He spends the better part of a day trying to dig his way out, only to be rescued by the miner’s dog who comes in through another entrance that Chantry didn’t notice. This doesn’t even bear a spoiler alert, for two reasons. First, there is no point to this episode whatsoever. Second, for there to be a spoiler alert there has to be some suspense or doubt as to the outcome, but we know perfectly well that somehow Chantry is going to get out of that mine. Chantry spends nine hours in the mine. It seems longer to the reader.
The mining disaster plays no part in the overall plot, it’s true. But it does give rise to another inconsistency in the story. L’Amour tells us, and we can well believe it, that after digging with his bare hands for nine hours, Chantry’s hands are “brutally torn and scraped,” “swollen and raw.” Yet within twelve hours, Chantry outdraws Boone Silva on Main Street, and there is no mention of Chantry’s battered hands. L’Amour may have forgotten about them, but we haven’t.
I could go on, but what’s the point? If you read Borden Chantry—and there are many better Louis L’Amours to read instead—then suspend your expectations regarding the coherence of the plot, and enjoy the smaller pleasures of L’Amour’s writing. Even these are fewer than in many of his other other novels, but they can be found. The gunfight with Boone Silva is terrific (though again L’Amour breaks convention and tells it from the perspective of Silva, rather than Chantry). We often derive pleasure from L’Amour’s historical, literary, and geographical references, but for the most part the ones in Borden Chantry are confusing and uninteresting. L’Amour does throw in a nice quote from Proverbs, though—The guilty flee when no man pursueth—which turns out to be a meta clue to the entire plot. And, in the last chapter, we get this wonderful ode to the lowly buzzard, which almost makes us glad we hung in there to the end:
“The cicadas sang in the brush, and the air was hot and still. And high above the land, a buzzard swung in lazy circles down the evening sky, secure in the knowledge that where men will ride, men will die, and content to await their dying. From all earthly troubles the buzzard was aloof, untouched by wrangle and debate, the song of bullet or the whine of arrow, the pounding hoofs, the sudden fall, the choking thirst or the flaming heat. He had only to bend a dark wing where the sky hung its clouds against the sun, and to await the inevitable end.”
That’s why we read him. Even on an off day, L’Amour delivers a few treats.