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Saturday, March 9, 2013
Under Outlaw Flags by James Reasoner
Few people dispute that John Ford was a great film maker. Two of my favorite westerns were directed by him: The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the latter, the bulk of the story is told in flashback to a reporter after the Wild West has been tamed. James Reasoner has employed a similar storytelling device in this novel, though both the "present day" setting, and the time period of the flashback, are skootched forward from those of John Ford's mythical tale.
Reasoner transports us back in time to the days when the Tacker gang was at large, and living large, even after the wilderness had become a garden (to paraphrase a John Ford theme as expressed in the aforementioned film). The Tacker Gang is a collection of likeable bank robbers. There is honor among these thieves, who visit a cathouse early in the novel, wind up losing all their hard-stolen cash to a crooked card sharp, then plan and execute a big job to replenish their coffers.
What develops from there is a heist-gone-wrong. Afterwards, a judge gives them the choice between prison and fighting the Hun in the First World War. They choose the latter.
These honorable thieves are men out of time, still living as if the West is Wild in the age of the automobile and the telephone. None more so than Drew, the narrator of the tale just dripping with anachronistic aw-shucks colloquialisms from a bygone era he doesn't fancy lettin' go of. Fortunately for Black Jack Pershing, these human time capsules come in mighty handy in the tussle against Kaiser Bill.
They fight as infantry and cavalry. They fight in the trenches, behind the lines, and a couple of them even fight in the war-torn skies over France. They even manage to pull another job while on furlough in Paris, though what they do with the ill-gotten loot afterwards is far more commendable than what the Tacker Gang was infamous for.
Under Outlaw Flags is pulp fiction (which if you've followed this blog for any time at all, you know is a compliment). It's a story which could feasibly have come from one of the popular western pulps of the 1950s-60s, if not from a western dime novel from even further back. It's an entertaining read with likable characters and hissable villains, set during a fascinating, transitional period in history that is often overlooked.