Durston by Norman Partridge from On Dangerous Ground: Stories of Western Noir

On Dangerous Ground Ed Gorman Dave Zeltserman Martin H. Greenberg Cemetery DanceReviewed by Matthew Funk

Durston starts strong with a snarling first line—“The whore wouldn’t take his money.”

You expect a moment of mercy to find your footing after words like those. But Norman Partridge’s western noir lays into you with the back of its hand with every sentence.

This is a story that starts off mean and, with stark and steady strikes across the page, gets worse by the line. With Durston, Norman Partridge managed to weave a narrative tapestry entirely out of human scars. Don’t miss out wrapping yourself in that kind of artistic feat, but don’t expect much comfort either.

The strength of Norman Partridge’s Durston is in its characterization. He manages to mount you on the shoulder of the title character, a ferocious gunman, and then muscle the horrid bastard entirely in coal-black deeds and drives. Just about the time you’re marveling at what an exotically vile animal you’re riding, Partridge pulls the neat trick of stitching you to this savage with some grounds for sympathy. They aren’t overdone and they certainly won’t have your heart shattering for this beast of the borderlands, but they’re enough to get you invested in Durston when the big, bad antagonist sidles into the story.

It would be a disservice to Durston’s predatory power if I showed you more than the basic pinnings of the plot. Part of its allure is that you’re not sure where Norman Partridge’s writing is going to wrench your brain, stomach and heart next. But all this is accomplished by a sophisticated narrative framework used to build a classic story—that of cursed payment.

Durston is a bad dude who did a real bad deed and now bears the burden of bringing badness to all about him.

Durston has hardly a drop of the bona fide fantastical in it—this isn’t magical realism for certain. The curse may be all in the head of our homicidal thug of a hero. The only thing for certain is that the tale of a larger-than-life outlaw trying to relieve the burden of cursed coins and to discover their origin is time-tested. Fortunately, it isn’t played out. Partridge manages to allude to a storyline that’s as old as Eris’ Golden Apple, while delivering something pretty fresh to the Western genre.

Partridge pieced that storyline together with pitch-perfect ingredients: The diction’s so corruptively dark, you’d think the ink in Durston was drawn from the devil’s breath. The pacing drags you steadily along, then tosses you off cliffhangers and into foreshadowing that demand you skitter to the next section with all due speed. Reveals, twists and challenges are all executed neat as knife work.

If I had fault to find in Durston, it’s that I couldn’t spend more time with this gun-toting ogre. Still and all, for most audiences, this tour of an Inferno on the range should last long enough and no longer. You get just enough back story and setbacks to show its narrative strength and flexibility. Just like in the opening scene, Durston bangs away powerfully to a grim climax and then tosses you aside.

It’s worth the ride, spur-scars and all. This morality play about how evil deeds have their own gravity—inescapable and all-consuming—is among the classic canon of the noir genre. Durston could just as fittingly been a cursed myrmidon or a doomed crusader knight. His story has the spirit of James Cain and Jim Thompson in it. But Durston’s flesh was crafted by Norman Partridge, whose unique achievement deserves its devil’s due:

Durston is hard to shed the blight of, almost irresistible not to take—pure cursed gold.

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