Book Review: “Mad River” by Donald Hamilton


Book: Mad River, by Donald Hamilton

Cover:  A nice cover painting. It fits the story well.

Back Cover: Boring with yet another slightly mis-leading plot description.

Style: Western-Noir

Plot: Boyd Cohoon returns from doing five years in Yuma for a crime he did not commit. While he was gone, his father and brother had been murdered. The family that he had protected by going to prison wanted nothing to do with him. And everyone seemed to want him dead. Cohoon decides to fight back. Mayhem ensues.

Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:

     He awoke at the bridge. The stage came to a full stop before venturing onto the long narrow span. This, like the ore wagons they had passed along the road, was new to Boyd Cohoon. There had been no bridge here five years ago, and no one had written him of it.

He pushed his hat our of his eyes and sat up, lean forward to look out the side window. Old John Black’s cable was still in place, he saw, far below and a quarter of a mile downstream. Despite the afternoon shadows, he could make out the dizzy switchbacks of the old road cut into the canyon wall on either side. The ferry was tied up at the south landing, looking water-logged and half-rotted already. The river swirled by it sullenly, yellow and creamy with sediment, the current gaining speed as it raced toward the narrow gorge below. Cohoon grimaced. Black’s Ferry had become history in the time he had been away. He wondered how many other landmarks of his boyhood had changed or vanished.


According to Wikipedia, Donald Hamilton was born in Sweden to Swedish nobility. He attended the University of Chicago and lived for a long time in Santa Fe. He is best known for his espionage books, especially his Matt Helm series.

Hamilton also wrote Westerns. A few of them were made into movies (The Big Country, The Violent Man).

Hamilton understands the Western well. The language. The characters. The land. And the tone. He also understands how to plot a page-turner.

Mad River was first published in 1956. Sometimes when I am reading a book I begin to wonder what was happening in the world around the time that the work was getting written and published.

1956 was a time of rapid change in the world: the Cold War, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, television. It was also a time of change in the Western… or more accurately, a time of change in the role the Western played in the American psyche.

Although Westerns dominated the little screen as well as the big screen in the late 50s and early 60s, they were beginning to lose ground in the publishing world. Would-be “genre writers” (whatever the hell that really means) were finding more and more money writing for markets other than the Western market. A good writer like Hamilton could make much more money writing his Matt Helm books than writing Westerns.

This is the first Donald Hamilton Western I can remember reading. I will now be reading every one I can get my hands on. I recommend that you do also.