“The Man Who Invented a Crime Subgenre” (by Kevin Mims)

Following on his post this past May about Herman Wouk’s contributions to our genre, here again is Kevin Mims—award-nominated fiction writer and EQMM contributor—with a post that brings to the attention of mystery fans a writer I’m willing to bet most of us have not previously considered a crime writer. I, for one, will put this writer on my “to read” list. —Janet Hutchings

In my last contribution to this blog I evaluated the life and career of the late Herman Wouk and observed that his novel The Caine Mutiny was probably the greatest American legal thriller of the twentieth century. This time around I want to examine the work of a lesser-known author who actually invented a literary subgenre that is closely related to the legal thriller. In October of 1976, Charles Scribner’s Sons published a first novel by a retired Army colonel and historian named Douglas C. Jones. The book was titled The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer. It was a courtroom drama about a real event (the Battle of the Little Bighorn) and real persons, but the trial at the heart of the novel was wholly fictional. As anyone with even the slightest knowledge of American history knows, George Armstrong Custer did not survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Here’s how Wikipedia sums up the battle:

The fight was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, who were led by several major war leaders, including Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, and had been inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull. The U.S. 7th Cavalry, a force of 700 men, suffered a major defeat while under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (formerly a brevetted major general during the American Civil War). Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated and Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their wounds), including four Crow Indian scouts and at least two Arikara Indian scouts.

For decades afterwards armchair historians argued about what went wrong for the American Army at Little Big Horn. Was Custer totally at fault? Was there any way that his force of 700 men could possibly have defeated an Indian war party believed to comprise at least 2,500 men? Was it hubris that drove him to defeat? Were his orders faithfully carried out by his subordinates? If not, could that have affected the outcome of the disaster? Not until one hundred years after Custer’s Last Stand, however, did someone have the brilliant idea of actually putting Custer on trial and forcing him to account for his actions.

Jones’s novel was an immediate hit. A writer for the New York Times Book Review presciently observed: “We may have here the harbinger of a new fictional genre.” And indeed, two years after the publication of Jones’s novel, author Philippe Van Rjndt produced a novel called The Trial of Adolf Hitler, in which Hitler, 25 years after his presumed death, is found hiding out in South America and brought to trial for his crimes against humanity. Subsequent years brought us such books as The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee by Thomas Fleming, The Court Martial of Robert E. Lee by Douglas Savage, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington by Charles Rosenberg, The Court-Martial of Benedict Arnold by Richard McMahon, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald by Robert E. Thompson, Lee Harvey Oswald on Trial by Keith and Rebekka Pruitt, The Trial of Osama bin Laden by Jean Senat Fleury, and many others. Even nonfiction authors have gotten in on the act. The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens isn’t a novel but it uses the methods pioneered by Douglas C. Jones to present a case that Henry Kissinger is a war criminal and ought to be charged as such. Likewise, famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi used Jones’s methods in a nonfiction book called The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, which argued that the ex-president knowingly took the U.S. to war in Iraq under false pretenses. Other lesser-known works make similar cases against the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Marianne Moore described poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” The genre Jones invented might be described as “imaginary trials with real defendants in them.” There is something very satisfying about the genre. In many cases it allows us a chance to go back and pursue courtroom justice against those who eluded it in life (although, in certain cases—Custer, Hitler, Oswald, etc.—it would be more accurate to say that they eluded it in death). There are plenty of other historical figures one might like to see brought to trial in a novel: Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, Captain Edward Smith of RMS Titanic fame (or infamy), Josef Stalin, John Wilkes Booth, Kim Philby, Jack the Ripper, etc.

There may have been alternate history trial novels published before The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, but if so, neither I nor the aforementioned reviewer for the New York Times Book Review could find much evidence of them. If they do exist, they certainly didn’t exert the same influence as Jones’s book, which, as we’ve seen, spawned dozens of imitators. Jones was, among many other things (i.e. painter of western landscapes, jazz musician, military man, scholar, etc.) a serious historian and a fan of historical fiction. It is entirely possible that his Custer novel was influenced by The Court-Martial of Daniel Boone, a 1973 novel written by the prolific, brilliant, and somewhat controversial Allan W. Eckert (Kirkus Reviews said of one of his historical works: “in its interpretive zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Similar charges were made against many of his other historical novels.) Eckert’s novel isn’t actually an alternative history, because Daniel Boone really was court-martialed. But the official records of Boone’s court-martial had long since disappeared by the time Eckert got around to writing about it, so he pretty much had to invent the whole thing (albeit with the aid of a great deal of research into the events in question).

Jones’s novel was enthusiastically blurbed by Jessamyn West, and she too may have been an influence on it. In 1975 she published an excellent historical novel called The Massacre at Fall Creek, which was inspired by an actual incident in which white men were, for the first time in U.S. history, charged with murder for killing Native Americans. Though based on fact, West had to fictionalize her courtroom scenes, for no official record of the proceedings has survived. Jones’s novel, which is deeply researched, was probably begun well before 1975, but it is nonetheless possible that a reading of The Massacre at Fall Creek might have provided him with inspiration during the latter stages of his own project.

Sadly, Jones’s groundbreaking novel hasn’t enjoyed the kind of success that Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny has. The book remains in print but has garnered only 12 reader reviews at Amazon.com. Compare that with The Caine Mutiny, which has 353 reviews at Amazon. First editions of Wouk’s book sell for hundreds of dollars. At the American Book Exchange (ABE.com) signed first editions of The Caine Mutiny are listed for as high as $6,500. A couple of years ago I bought a first edition (second printing) of The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer from a reputable dealer on ABE.com. Not only was my copy signed and dated (“12/24/76 Fayetteville, Arkansas”) by the author but the sale included several of Charles Scribner’s Sons original promotional materials for the novel. I paid $8 for the book, which was 95 cents less than its original cover price.

As good as The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer is, it is nowhere near Jones’s best novel. In my opinion, his two best books (and I’ve read them all) are Winding Stair and The Search for Temperance Moon, both of which ought to be read by every crime-fiction fan in America. Both novels are loosely based on historical events. Winding Stair (published in 1979) was inspired by the murderous doings of a real-life band of outlaws known as the Rufus Buck Gang, which went on a killing and raping spree in the Indian Territory of the Arkansas-Oklahoma area back in the summer of 1895. Winding Stair is a novel that deftly satisfies the requirements of at least a half dozen literary genres. It is a historical novel, a Western, a romance (of a sort), a police procedural, a manhunt, a thriller, a mystery, and a courtroom drama. What’s more, it is beautifully written, with startling bits of descriptive prose on nearly every page. During a tense moment, when some U.S. Marshals are tending to a dying colleague on the floor of a darkened general store, Jones writes: “Someone kicked over a sack of dried beans in the darkness, and they rattled across the wooden floor like shod mice.” One critic called Winding Stair True Grit for adults,” which is an insult to Charles Portis’s brilliant novel (I’d hate to meet an adult reader who considered himself too mature for True Grit, one of the few masterpieces of American literature that can be appreciated by readers from fifteen to 95—or beyond). Nonetheless, that critic was on to something. Winding Stair has a strong kinship with Portis’s classic. Both are set in the Indian Territory of Arkansas and Oklahoma in the late nineteenth century and both concern the exploits of eccentric (to put it mildly, in the case of Rooster Cogburn) U.S. Marshals operating under Judge Isaac Parker’s jurisdiction. Portis’s book is funnier than Jones’s, although Jones’s is not without humor. Jones’s book is, ironically, grittier than Portis’s (with graphically depicted scenes of rape, torture, and murder), but Portis’s is still plenty gritty.

The title character in The Search for Temperance Moon (1991) is based upon the real-life outlaw Belle Starr, who was murdered in 1889. The novel follows the efforts of near-sighted, cocaine-using U.S. Marshal Oscar Schiller (also a major character in Winding Stair) to find the killer or killers. This novel too succeeds in a multitude of genres, but above all it is a great crime novel, the story of a relentless lawman’s pursuit of justice across a lawless territory. The New York Times called it “a big and beautiful western mystery.” Imagine Harry Bosch or Walt Longmire or Spenser transported back to the Old West in search of a dangerous criminal and you’ll get some idea of what waits for you in the pages of this excellent novel.

Douglas C. Jones is not an obscure novelist. He may not be as famous as Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, or Larry McMurtry, but anyone who is at all passionate about Western novels has probably read one or more of his books. Like Elmer Kelton, Norman Zollinger, and Dorothy Johnson, he’s beloved by true connoisseurs of serious Western literature. Although all of his novels are historical novels, they are not all true Westerns. Some predate the cowboy era and concern themselves instead with the years just before and after America gained its independence from Britain. Weedy Rough is set in small-town America just after World War I. Some of his novels deal with the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Jones was more concerned with history than with mystery, thus not all of his novels have enough criminous elements in them to qualify them as crime stories. But if all he ever did in the crime genre was invent the alternative-history trial novel, he would deserve to be held in high esteem by mystery fans, particularly those who love courtroom dramas. But Jones did more than that. He wrote two dead-solid-perfect historical crime thrillers—Winding Stair and The Search for Temperance Moon. If you are a mystery lover and haven’t read them yet, do yourself a favor and seek them out. You may have to do a little footwork in a few dozen used bookstores in order to track them down, but isn’t that the kind of thing that mystery readers love to do?

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