Whether it is an installment in the Longarm or The Trailsman series, a book co-authored with his wife (and accomplished writer in her own right) Livia Reasoner, or one of his own titles, you know what to expect from a James Reasoner novel. Seamless prose, tight plotting and all-around entertaining yarns are some of his trademarks, all of which are present in his latest offering, Death Head Crossing (Pinnacle). Set in the appropriately-named Texas town of the title, the story works both as a fast-paced mystery and a traditional Western.
Drifting gunslinger Hell Jackson rides into the small community and decides to stick around in the wake of a spate of mysterious homicides. The crimes, committed by an enigmatic killer known as the “Hand of God,” are apparently motivated by religious fanaticism and a desire to punish alleged sinners. The irony of a hero named Hell being pitted against an antagonist who is allegedly fulfilling a divine mission indicates the reader from the outset that nothing is as it seems in Death Head Crossing.
Jackson befriends young New York reporter Everett Sidney Howard, who is not only eager to write a story about the gunslinger but also make a name for himself following the footsteps of his journalistic hero, Mark Twain. Hell begrudgingly allows Everett to stick around as he pursues his investigation but not without warning the journalist first: "[I]f I find out that you called me something like a Dashing Daredevil of the Plains or some other dime-novel shit, you and me are gonna have another little talk." In time, they strike a partnership that stirs them closer to the truth behind the violent deaths that are terrorizing the town.
With a cast of skillfully fleshed out characters – including the baffled Sheriff Ward Brennan, the local representative of the Fourth Estate Malcolm Graham and Benjamin Tillman, the sanctimonious scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family who hides a tortuous secret – Death Head Crossing is a compelling Western whodunit.
Hell Jackson is likewise an intriguing character even though his background is only hinted at. Relying on both his quick draw and wits uncommon for a gunman of his repute, he seems worldlier than he wants everyone to believe. By the end of the novel, we wish to know more about his past just as much as his future and can only hope this becomes the first installment in a series. The tough Jackson and the cub reporter Howard make for a most entertaining duo and deserve to have more adventures in print.