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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Western Icons - Adam Steele

The character of Adam Steele was, by any standards, a resounding success - 49 books in the series proper and the character also appeared in three books alongside that other western icon, Edge. Indeed it is the character of Edge that takes the sheen off Steele. Both characters were created by British writer, Terry Harknett under his George G. Gilman name, but Edge was such a true phenomenon that Adam Steele is not exactly perceived as the success he was. Back in the day the Steele books sold well but the Edge books flew from the shelves. Still 49 books is a pretty good run by any standards.

I must admit that as a teenage reader, the Edge series was my favourite and, although I tried the odd Steele (they did come from the same pen, after all). But the books seemed to me not as good as Edge and for many years I didn't read Steele. It was only later, after reading all the Edge titles, that I went back to Steele and, although I still think the Edge series is something else, I found Steele a great series. In fact these days I'm much more appreciative of Steele than ever - the books are rightly considered classics of the western genre.

There are those who actually prefer the Steele series to Edge.

The Steele books, although having their moments, were not as slickly violent or blackly humorous as the Edge titles, but then maybe that's not strictly true for the violence was often there, but it seemed that the character of Steele was not quite as violent as the halfbreed called Edge. It was as if for the Edge series the author had spawned his world from the spaghetti westerns with all their excess and for the Steele series he was very much in the west of classic Hollywood. That Steele and Edge met several times and lived in the same universe, somewhat rubbishes that arguement, but the point is there was and remains a different feel to the two series.

Steele was a Southerner and Edge a Yankee, and they were very much opposing sides of the same coin, but enough of Edge, for this little article is about Adam Steele.

The first Adam Steele book, The Violent Peace was published in 1974 and immediately sold well on the strength of the George G. Gilman name. However the book deserved its success, regardless of who the author was - it's a fine story, written with real pace and perhaps with more of an understanding of the real Old West, than displayed in the early Edge books. The story opens in the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln. This terrible event brings a thirst for vengeance and an old gentleman, accused of being a Southern sympathiser is murdered. That old man was pappy Steele and this sets Adam Steele off on a vengeance trail.

And so the series started.

This was the 1970's and for a time the best western fiction being written anywhere in the world came from the UK. The movies of Sergio Leone had changed the face of the western movie  and the traditional western hero became an anachronism in his own genre. This was the time of the anti-hero and the British western writers, unshackled by the legacy of American western history, followed the lead of the European's who had stolen that most American of genres and made it their own.

The books followed a similar pattern to the spaghetti westerns - more and more were churned out, becoming more and more outlandish until eventually they were even parodying themselves and the British Western boom ended. There was a time when the western section of most bookshops were dominated by British writers and their series characters. It was Gilman himself who had opened the floodgates for this in the first place and all of a sudden there were dozens of Edge clones on the shelves as more and more writers and publishers jumped on the bandwagon. Gilman himself wasn't immune to this and, besides Steele and Edge, he also created several less successful characters - The Undertaker and Apache, anyone - he also had a hand in Jubal Cade.

It was a great time to be a western fan.

With boom though there is bust and almost overnight the western series seemed to vanish from the shops, but both Steele and Edge remained popular.

"George G. Gilman (Terry Harknett) has written a terrific story in Wanted For Murder. His two plotlines twist together in what seems to be an impossible situation for Adam Steele to escape from a free man – or even with his life." Western Fiction's Review

Eventually Steele would meet up with Edge (there's no getting away from him) in the team up novel, Two of a Kind. I don't think this book showed Steele at his best. I think the character suffered being forced to share an adventure with Edge, but then neither was Edge at his best in this book. My own personal opinion on why the team up doesn't work is because  the feel of a Steele book, the voice if you like was subtly different from the Edge books and when brought together the story seemed confused. It also seemed that the author tried too hard to make the novelty of the pairing work.

However the fans lapped the book up and two more team up books would follow.

If you've never read Steele then there are many places to jump onto the series - indeed even although there was significant character development over the years, the books can be enjoyed in any order. If you fancy taking a look then just get hold of any of the titles you can find and start there.

The Steele's War sequence - books 25 - 28, offer a rare connected storyline and these are best read in order, but there's no real need to worry about continuity. Dig out any Adam Steel novel you can find and a good time is pretty much assured.

A postscript - George G. Gilman revisited his western universe for a mini-series of Edge novels set in later years and featuring an older and mellower halfbreed. And Steele would also figure in these books which are available for free HERE.

The early Steele titles had a large print run and copies of this book are relatively easy to track down for a decent price, but with the first Edge book out in digital print from Solstice Publishing, it is a possibility that one day we may see Steele popping back up digitally, pistols blazin.


Slap Bookleather said...

Great post. I've tried a lot of the "adult westerns" over the years, but never Edge or Steele. I'll keep an eye out next time.

RJR said...

I'm one of the people who preferred Steele tpo Edge--probably becauise Steele is very vlose to ther Ben Haas written FARGO series--right down to the shotgun.
True story: Back when we were starting the Gunsmith his namke was not yet Clint Adams. I had sent in a few possible names, but got a call one early morning. My editor said, "We've had a meeting and we've decided to call him Adam Steele." I said, "That's fine with me but you better check with George Gilman because he already has a longrunning series called Adam Steele. Who does your market research?" After a pause my editor said, "I'll get back to you." They did, and we settled on Clint Adams.