YESTERDAY’S PULP: “THE MOPPER-UP” BY HORACE MCCOY (1931)
by Fred Blosser
I was in the mood to revisit Horace McCoy, but I already had a half-dozen other books stacked up in my to-read pile. I was reluctant to break my stride by reaching for “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” or even one of McCoy’s other, shorter novels. Bill Pronzini’s wonderful anthology, “The Arbor House Treasury of Detective & Mystery Stories from the Great Pulps” (1983) charged to my rescue. One of the stories in the collection, “The Mopper-Up” from the November 1931 issue of “Black Mask,” is 101-proof McCoy but short enough to read in a quick sitting.
The title character, Captain Tom Bender of the Texas Rangers, is dispatched to the prairie town of Rondora, where an oil boom has drawn an influx of gangsters, grifters, and bootleggers. In a gunfight on main street between the two gambling honchos, Miller and Patton, a stray bullet killed a little girl. The shooting was the final outrage for the town’s old timers, who are fed up with the lawlessness and the lack of follow-through by the police chief. Led by the little girl’s father, they’re organizing a vigilante committee. “I want you to get over there and head off trouble,” Bender’s boss orders.
There’s no detection in the 31-page story and minimal complication. The plot moves in as straight and focused a line as Bender himself. The Ranger comes to town, gets the vigilantes cooled off before they can make things worse, shuts down one gambling den, torches the other one, and shoots two or three thugs. He produces evidence needed to convene a grand jury investigation, and leaves town after helping to install an honest citizen as the new police chief.
No love interest or even sex interest. “Women looked at him but he paid no attention because he didn’t know women could talk with their eyes.” The line makes Bender sound incredibly naive, but elsewhere McCoy clearly indicates that Bender -- true to his name -- likes to let loose when he’s not working. Maybe he’s like Hammett’s Continental Op, who has no time for foolishness when he’s on the job, or maybe like Jules Feiffer’s famous analysis of Superman. He’s the idealize alpha male, so confident and self-sufficient that he doesn’t need to make passes at available women, or even respond to every pass that comes his way.
While there isn’t much that distinguishes Rondora from any other corrupt boom town in pulp fiction, McCoy’s description of the adjacent oil patch bristles with vivid detail, from the back-breaking toil in winter that brings in the first gusher to the Ranger’s initial impression as he arrives in town by train at night: “The rigs were thrown around the town in an uneven circle, a glow about the floor of each derrick, a lone light gleaming up near the double board, another ninety feet in the air to light up the top of the stands and another above that on a gin pole which shone dully down on the crown blocks.”
Tom Bender personifies the Texas frontiersman in terms that the “Black Mask” audience of 1931 would have read without batting an eye. Today’s readers tend to be a little pricklier, granting minor leeway if the terms are used in an ironic hipster way. “He was the issue of a frontier ancestry that had driven the Indians west of the Pecos to clear settlements for log cabins, a civilization of contrasts: hard, kind and tragic. The measure of an aristocrat was the nerve he had and the speed with which he could bark an Injun in his tracks and pitch a buffalo on his head with one ball.”
And, in a backstory about the Ranger’s previous mission on the Border that McCoy relates tersely as Bender arrives in Austin to receive his new assignment: “They were as slick a gang of greasers as a man ever clapped an eye on and they fought like wildcats but he brought four of them in alive.”
Wearing a big white hat “that had silk lining as red as the alegria stain that saves your face from the sun,” packing a .38 revolver and a .45 automatic, Bender brings to mind the flinty, modern-day Texas Ranger played a few years ago by Nick Nolte in “Extreme Prejudice,” with a little bit of “Searchers”-era John Wayne. Violence erupts suddenly, and McCoy’s descriptions are dillies: “He gave up trying to get the .38 and lashed out hard, struck one of them and heard him grunt. He fell back, still swinging and something hit him a powerful lick behind the head and he thought it was going to snap off. A white explosion ascended in front of him and he staggered. As he did he came out with his .45 from his hip pocket and shook his head desperately to clear the mists and locate one of his assailants. In a moment he saw a form before him and he leveled the .45 and squeezed the trigger.”
There’s a fair amount of discussion about Horace McCoy on the internet, and even a downloadable HTML of “The Mopper-Up” at the Munseys.com site. It’s unfortunate that no one has ever collected his “Black Mask” stories in one volume -- at least here in America, in the original English. According to William F. Nolan’s listing in “The Black Mask Boys” (1985), there were 17 stories, mostly featuring the adventures of another Prohibition-era Texas Ranger, Jerry Frost. That’s a worthy project for someone in this era of pulp resurgence in e-publishing and POD.