Destry rides the first time
Western novelist and short-story writer Max Brand (1844 – 1922), pictured left, whose real name was the infinitely superior Frederick Schiller Faust, also wrote under a variety of noms de plume, including George Owen Baxter, Evan Evans, George Evans, David Manning, John Frederick, Peter Morland, George Challis, Peter Ward and Frederick Frost.
His story Twelve Peers, later released as the novel Destry Rides Again to cash in on the motion pictures, first appeared serialized in Western Story Magazine in February and March 1930. It was well written (all his Westerns were thoughtful and literary) and very enjoyable.
The first thing you notice is that it is very different indeed from any of the movie treatments. The first of these was Tom Mix’s for Universal in 1932, Mix’s first talkie, also starring Francis Ford. Very few of us have seen this picture, sadly, but it is clear from the synopsis that it does not follow the Brand story except in the broad sense of Destry returning after prison to get revenge. Brand’s hero Harry Destry became Tom Destry (Mix often used his own first name for characters he played) and that ‘Tom’ stuck when James Stewart assumed the mantle in 1939 in that year's Destry Rides Again. Later film versions also departed from the book, each with its own free interpretation. After James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich’s came Joel McCrea and Shelley Winters in Frenchie (1950), Audie Murphy and Mari Blanchard in Destry (1954), and finally, on TV, John Gavin (as Harrison Destry) with no Frenchie in sight, in Destry (one season, 1964). There’s no Frenchie in the book, by the way, either.
The February 1930 issue
The book is a short novel (cheaply available on Kindle if you are interested) and tells of apparently mild-mannered Harrison, known as Harry Destry returning to the Texas town of Wham (not Bottleneck) after years in the pen. He says he is reformed. Although the twelve members of the jury that unjustly put him away are scared, for Harry was a holy terror in those days and a demon with a gun, they are reassured by his current meekness and willingness to submit to insult. He doesn’t even rush to reunite with former sweetheart ‘Charlie’ Dangerfield. In fact he seems broken by his time in prison. He did six years of a ten-year stretch, being released early for good behavior.
The first of the movie versions
But those jurors are sorely deceived. Harry’s mildness is a front and he is more than determined on revenge. The title comes from Harry’s demanding of the judge what peers might be, for he is man of limited education and unfamiliar with the term. The magistrate explains that the jury is comprised of twelve of his equals, who will pass judgement on him. Harry then succinctly lists why these men are far from his peers, each having his own reason for committing Destry to incarceration which had nothing to do with whether he robbed the express (he did not).
The one man in the whole of Wham, it seems, who stands by Destry is his friend and pillar of the community Chester Bent. Bent welcomes Harry to his home and greets him with open arms. But the story soon shows us that Iago had nothing on Chester Bent. He secretly covets Charlie, he wants Harry dead and, yes, it was he all those years ago who robbed the express! He is a snakelike false friend of the worst kind.
Well, the tension mounts as Harry starts getting his revenge, and one by one the jurors are eliminated. He is very careful to provoke them and never to draw first – he’s not going to do any more years in the pen. And he prefers to expose and shame them than kill them – the punishment will be worse. Brand is quite skillful at showing the stupidity of small-town feuds and the futility of violence.
Harry’s greatest ally and in some ways a second hero of the book is the farm boy Little Willie Thornton and in this it reminds us of countless B-Westerns that featured plucky lads for the largely juvenile audience to identify with. Willie is a great character and pretty well saves the day as gradually Bent’s wickedness is revealed and the climax approaches as the inevitable showdown looms…
Twelve Peers is little more than a novella and no great masterpiece but it is entertaining and clever, and it carries you along. Recommended.