Incident at Twenty-Mile -- Trevanian's take on the Western

Jan 25, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well plotted, a nice take on the Western

Cons:Gets violent in parts

The Bottom Line: It's a great tribute to the Western mythos.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is Trevanian's take on the Western. It takes place in 1898, in a very small town in the middle of Wyoming. Twenty-Mile is a town which has sprung up to service the nearby silver mine, and although it is only eleven years old, it is swiftly dying. Only about fifteen people live there. As in most westerns, these people fall comfortably into stock roles.

Two strangers come to Twenty-Mile. The first is Matthew, our hero. Matthew is helpful, nice, and friendly. Matthew also has his own secrets and demons from which he is running, of course. Matthew also lets us see the story through his eyes and ears for much of it. The first part of the story involves his arrival at Twenty-Mile and his attempts to fit into the small society that dwells there.

The second, arriving later, is Lieder. Lieder is the Bad Guy, the black hat. He's not unlike an 1898 version of Hannibal Lecter -- he's very intelligent, but a psychopath. Lieder comes into town with two goons and takes over. With all the town's guns in his possession, he swiftly turns the pleasant town into his own demented playground. Rather than attempt to fit in, Lieder simply demands that everyone else change to suit him.

The characters are saved from being utter cardboard cut-outs by their self-awareness. Matthew, the hero, is aware of his place in Twenty-Mile and in the world. Likewise, BJ and Coots (who serve as the Crusty Friends of the Hero), Ruth Lillian Kane (the Virgin Love Interest), and the three prostitutes (naturally, who have hearts of gold) who service the miners all seem to realize their places in the story and in the world. They are aware of current politics (the end of the Spanish-American War, as well as immigration issues.) Interestingly, Lieder is vehemently against immigrants and other races.

These characters are also realistic in how they act and how they are drawn. Confronted with Lieder's sociopathic behavior, some stand up to him, and some knuckle under, afraid of superior force. When one of the secondary characters attempts to attack Lieder, he does so trying to think strategically and with some fear -- the way you or I would, in other words.

But of course, we can't forget the action. Lieder provides us gamely with lots of bad-guy stuff. (Were Palm Pilots around in this era, Lieder's to-do list would be full of evil deeds.) He tortures an old teacher and a gold miner. He argues with BJ upon his arrival and then shoots the mules he has brought with him in a fit of pique. He beats up a few of the men in the town, then forces them to get drunk with him as he humiliates one of the town's prostitutes. He torments the town's consumptive gambler in order to show what he'll do if he's crossed. How will this end? Will Lieder get the silver on the train and build his army to destroy all the immigrants and politicians plaguing America? Will Matthew give in to Lieder's offer to become his prince regent? Will Evil Triumph?

Yes, it comes off sounding like a cheap western novel (or a Bat-Man episode), but Trevanian's talent is that he takes these stock characters and makes them believable. Even at the final showdown, it's believable. You never once roll your eyes and say 'Yeah, Right.'

In addition, Trevanian provides us with a 'wrap-around' plot in which he details how he found Twenty-Mile as a ghost town and discovered its story. It's fictitious, of course, but it's fun.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is a great read. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Westerns or just a good action book.

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