Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dakota #1: Warpath

Dakota #1: Warpath, by Gilbert A Ralston
November, 1973  Pinnacle Books

As Marty McKee notes, Gilbert Ralston was a TV writer, most known for the creation of The Wild Wild West, and his five-volume Dakota series bears all the hallmarks of a made-for-TV mindset. Indeed, it’s interesting that Pinnacle even published this, let alone labeled it as “adventure” on the spine; it has more in common with the low-rent private eye thrills of Hardy.

You know you’re in trouble when the back cover and first-page preview both spotlight the same action scene – and that’s because it’s the only action scene, really. Also curious that Pinnacle doesn’t inform us who Ralston is anywhere on the book; you’d think they would play up the fact that the dude was a successful TV writer. But anyway I have to agree with Marty, who waded through three of the Dakota novels, that the series was likely envisioned as a potential TV series. But if it had ever come to be it doubtless would’ve been one of the more boring shows in the annals of TV detectives.

Our series protagonist is Clay Dakota, an American Indian somewhere in his 30s who was a Force Recon Marine in ‘Nam, where he sustained a leg injury that sometimes still gives him trouble. After that he served as a “one-man police force” in some town in upstate New York, and then he opened his own “Pinkerton’s agency” in Carson Valley, Nevada. Dakota lives on a ranch in Genoa and does various private eye jobs; he’s been deputized by his buddy, Sheriff Al Bennedetti, and works closely with him. Dakota drives an old Chevy that has an auxilary fuel tank in the trunk and a .38 revolver hidden beneath the dash.

Dakota is perhaps the only men’s adventure protagonist to regularly call home to his mother. This should tell you all you need to know about the guy’s qualities as a kick-ass action hero.

Ralston goes for a slooow-burn approach; the cover art and slugline actually makes the book sound like a Western, and maybe that’s the vibe Ralston was attempting. This is not a frantically-paced tale by any means, and the central plot, of Dakota visiting an old mining town ruled by a millionaire despot, is also straight out of a Western. Dakota as an Indian hero is in for the same amount of racism, harrassment, and bullying as in a Western; there are too many parts where slackjawed yokels will amble over to his table and try to stir up shit over his heritage.

I’m too lazy to look up how old Ralston was when he wrote this, but I’m betting he was on in years, as he imbues Dakota with the wisdom of an old man. Maybe this is a play on the old “wise Indian” clich√©, but Dakota is so patient and pragmatic as to be inhuman, like a Vulcan men’s adventure hero. Much of the narrative is given over to his ruminations on this or that, particularly on the foibles of people. It has the cumulative effect that you start to picture the guy as a geriatric rather than a tough-as-nails ‘Nam vet with an occasionally game leg.

Well anyway, Warpath gets the ball rolling for the series. Dakota’s called into the store owned by his old Chinese pal Sam Lew; Sam thinks he has a case for Dakota. It’s a young woman who won’t give her name or where she’s from, but she says her husband was killed and she wants Dakota to find out who did it: “Find the men who killed my husband. Barbecue them.” Dakota requests time to mull over if he wants to take the case, but then Sam and the young woman are killed by a car bomb. Dakota is now determined to see justice is served.

With Bennedetti’s help he discovers that the murdered woman was named Amy Rainey, and her husband was named Jack. They owned a bar in Poison Springs, Nevada, an old mining town owned by Burton Ashley. Dakota goes undercover as a cattle purchaser. The majority of the novel is focused on Dakota’s run-ins with the locals and the local law enforcement. He makes enemies with a trio of toughs (whom he beats up in a bar fight – this scene being the source of those front and back cover excerpts) and makes friends with a deputy named Phillips. He gets in the hair of Sheriff Hanna, and also becomes cozy with an attractive bank teller named Janet Hartley.

Suprisingly, Ralston actually writes a sex scene between the two. Here it is in its entirety: “He plunged into her.” That’s it! But Janet might as well be dating Charles Death Wish Bronson, as it becomes clearly obvious what fate is in store for her, given that she’s dating the only stranger in town, a stranger who is hiding ulterior motives and who has already run afoul of various people. There are a few muddled attempts on Dakota’s life, but he brushes it all off, gathering intel from drunken reporter Clifford Spring, a man who has long suspected Burton Ashley of being an evil bastard.

When Janet meets her expected fate Dakota takes the expected route – a peyote trip with a local tribe. Meanwhile he gets shot in the arm but he’s feeling practically brand new when Bennedetti shows up, helping Dakota work the case here in Poison Spring. But to tell the truth it’s all pretty bland, only salvaged by a very late moment where Dakota is stranded in the desert and five men come after him. This sequence plays off more on his “Indian skills” of sneaking up on people and also on his survivalist instincts, like how he knows that high ridge desert sand is very combustible.

The climax itself is more along the lines of a mystery thriller; after a nice sequence where Dakota and Bennedetti scale the electric fence surrounding Burton Ashley’s mansion and tranquilize his guard dogs, it instead devolves into lots of dialog as Ashley tries to barter for his freedom with Dakota. We also get an 11th hour reveal where one of Dakota’s pals turns out to be a sadistic killer, but it’s pretty hard to buy. But don’t worry, Dakota solves the case and arrests Ashley just in time to get home for dinner with mom and dad!!

Four more volumes were to follow, and if Marty’s comments are any indication, they become progressively more bland, so I’m in no hurry to get to them.


FreeLiverFree said...

I guess Dakota is a, well, Dakota Sioux? Or is just called an Indian?

Interesting, that he was in Force Recon. When someone chooses an elite unit to show their character is a badass it's usually the Green Berets or the SEALS>

RJR said...

Ralston died at 87 in 1999 in a nursing home. His entry on IMDb shows he wrote one episode of The Wild Wild West, had nothing to do with creating it. Did A LOT of writing of episodes for other t.v. series, though, such as Burke's Law, Gunsmoke, I Spy, Combat, The Big Valley, Laredo, Star Trek, Iron Horse, Land of the Giants, Name of the Game, Hawaii 5-0, O'Hara U.S. Treasury and Nichols.


Clayton Walter said...

I have all of these. I liked them quite a bit as a whole.

Clayton Walter said...

I have all of these. I liked them quite a bit as a whole.