Monday, October 4, 2010

"Fort Starvation" by Frank Gruber (Pennet Books, 1954)

Frank Gruber was one of the Hall of Fame pulpsters, writing for the biggest and best magazines: Black Mask, Street & Smith, Ranch Romances, Detective Fiction Weekly, and many others. Before he hit the big times, though, he couldn’t even sell to religious newsletters or any publication, no matter who small and how low the pay. Gruber documented his struggle from the bottom of the barrel to the top of industry in the invaluable memoir The Pulp Jungle. The book is a must-have for anyone interested in the life of a pulp writer during the 1930s.

The Pulp Jungle unfortunately ends shortly after Gruber successfully made the transition from pulps into hardbacks and was making his first foray into Hollywood. Aside from being a terrific writer, Gruber was also smart and knew how to navigate the writing industry. He had a long career, wrote many screenplays, novels, short stories, and later made the move into television.

Though he wrote in many genres, Westerns were one of Gruber’s specialties. Fort Starvation was originally published as a serial in Ranch Romances in 1952, then as hardcover in 1953 by Rinehart and Company. My edition is the first paperback edition from Pennet Books in 1954.

The story is about John Slater, whose father was killed at Fort Starvation in a battle with the Indians. The fort got its name because the men behind the walls were faced with two enemies: the Indians outside, and the lack of food inside. When a patrol finally found the men, the fort was burned and five bodies were found.

Only John Slater knows that six men were at Fort Starvation, and that there was a large cache of gold that wasn’t found after the battle, and he suspects that it might not have been the Indians responsible for the killings. Looking to uncover the identity of the sixth man and bring his father’s murderer to justice, Slater sets out across the West. But Slater isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery, and this other party would kill to figure out the puzzle first.

Fort Starvation is very entertaining, and its swiftly moving plot blends Western action with plenty of intrigue, suspense, and even a little romance. Gruber was a capable craftsman and knew how to keep a reader hooked. Even if you can guess the identity of the killer, Gruber’s seasoned storytelling voice makes this a pleasurable read the whole way through.

And now for two of my favorite quotes from the book:

“What sort of people do steal, Colonel…Born criminals? Or trusted servants of the public? Every man has his price. With some it’s money, with others…”

“A week ago Slater had been riding toward the hills. His eyes had been so intent on them that he had scarcely been aware of the green valley through which he passed. His eyes were only on the hills ahead. They were bleak and forbidding. They seemed to have been created by a gigantic hand that had torn up huge handfuls of earth and rock and tossed them down willy-nilly, as if in anger or spite. There was no rhyme or sense to it. Gullies ran here or there, as often as not ended against blind walls of rock.”


  1. I've always enjoyed the Gruber stuff I've read but haven't read a lot. Will look for more of his stuff.

  2. I like Gruber's westerns and his mysteries. The guy could write in both genres with skill.

  3. Jeez, despite reading at least 20 of his mysteries I've never tried a western. I own a handful, too.

  4. I have some of his mysteries at home I'm looking forward to. The Buffalo Box, I think it is called.

  5. The book, FORT STARVATION, was made into a motion picture in 1956 starring Richard Widmark and Donna Reed. It is entitled BACKLASH. Considering the two leads and the on-location shooting of the film and the fine scenery and photography this is western worth seeing if you are a fan of westerns or Widmark or the Lovely Ms. Reed. I recommend it but it is not on Region 1 DVD and is scarce and expensive on VHS.


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