Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Wild Wild West #1 by Richard Wormser

Surprisingly, for a television series that ran four seasons and was quite popular among young audiences, THE WILD WILD WEST spawned only one tie-in paperback. Richard Wormser's simply titled THE WILD WILD WEST was not an original work, but rather was adapted without credit from "The Night of the Double-Edged Knife," an episode from the series' black-and-white first season.

In brief, THE WILD WILD WEST was a clever combination of old-fashioned western tropes, the new spy craze born from the explosive James Bond movies, and a dash of science fiction/fantasy. HAWAIIAN EYE's Robert Conrad starred as James T. West with character actor Ross Martin (MR. LUCKY) cast as West's partner Artemus Gordon. West, a typically dashing two-fisted type, and master of disguise Gordon worked as government agents who roamed the Old West battling bad guys. During the first year, their antagonists were more or less normal killers, robbers, and bank robbers. It wasn't until the series found its bearings that it introduced kinkier villains and more way-out gimmicks, including an episode in which West was shrunk to six inches in height.

The gifted Stephen Kandel, who created con man heavy Harry Mudd for STAR TREK, penned "The Night of the Double-Edged Knife," though it's unknown why he received no credit on the Wormser book. Wormser more or less follows Kandel's basic plot, though he obviously added characters and story branches to open the story to book length. West and Gordon, whose home base is a luxury steam train, are called to investigate blackmail and murder. Namely, the killing of five men per day on a railroad being financed by Penrose (played in the episode by Harry Townes) and Adamson (Vaughn Taylor) under the direction of General Ball (Leslie Nielsen), who once was West's respected Army commander, but was washed out of the service after losing an arm.

For three days straight, the mysterious blackmailers have made good on their promise to kill five men per day until Penrose and Adamson meet their demand for $50,000 in gold smelted into railroad spikes. Under suspicion is American Knife (John Drew Barrymore), a Dartmouth-educated Cheyenne who claims to be taking the fall for the real killer, a white man. Wormser keeps the killer's identity a mystery until the final chapters, though--perhaps in the interest of time--"Double-Edged Knife" reveals it at the beginning of the third act.

Wormser mostly does a good job capturing the humor and the derring-do of the television series, especially in adapting Robert Conrad's voice for the page. His biggest misstep is his characterization of Gordon, who is not West's equal in the novel, but instead a deferential employee. To pad the page count, West and Gordon have a butler, who's addicted to gambling at cards, always with a few aces up his sleeves.

Unfortunately, this 1966 novel was Signet's only WILD WILD WEST book, though Wormser went on to write TV tie-ins of THE GREEN HORNET, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, and THE MOST DEADLY GAME, as well as a few movie novelizations and a lot of pulp fiction, sometimes under the name Ed Friend. Gold Key did release a handful of WILD WILD WEST comic books during the late 1960s through the show's cancellation in 1969.


James Reasoner said...

I remember reading and enjoying this one when it was new. I was a fan of the TV show. The book is actually pretty late in Wormser's career, which started in the pulps in the early Thirties. He wrote the novels for the pulp version of Nick Carter and contributed a bunch of serials to ARGOSY (including one with the great title "Gorilla Cargo") and DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY, then wrote a number of paperback originals for Gold Medal, Avon, etc., during the Fifties. Good solid author but not one I ever considered among my favorites.

Lohr McKinstry said...

West and Gordon have a butler on the train in some early episodes, so it may have been a reference in the script that was deleted before filming or cut from the final print, but made it into the novel. Tennyson, played by Charles Davis, was the butler.