16 March 2004

Not So Wild in the West

I polished off Robert Vaughan's second Wild Wild West novel tonight with a mixture of amusement and regret. (BTW, many people who review this book on Amazon.com are under the impression that the author is Robert Vaughn, a.k.a. the man from UNCLE. Sorry folks, note the difference in spelling. The last time I saw Mr. Vaughn, he had started a descent into squalor and degradation by doing a commercial for an ambulance-chasing lawyer. How the mighty have fallen. But I digress...) Mr. Vaughan is a fairly good writer who tried his best in three books to recapture the feel of one of the best of the 1960s adventure series.

The amusement came from a review on Amazon.com that chided Vaughan for not using the two things that WWW was always noted for: gorgeous girls and great gadgets. The reviewer was right: there are two beautiful women in this book, but neither Jim nor Artie ends up romancing either one of them, and the most technologically advanced gadget in the story is the locomotive pulling their train in a cross-country dash.

The WWW series sizzled with all sorts of Victorian-appearing, technologically-advanced machines and gizmos. It was always a surprise to see what modern gadget in 19th century garb the West writers and the able CBS prop department came up with, especially the ones created by series irregular favorite, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, performed con brio by the wonderful Michael Dunn. Vaughan's novels stick to more of the possible inventions of the time, and, alas, in this age, the babes that delighted 1960s audiences are considered trite and chauvinistic now.

Vaughan does point out some adventure clichès that we've all sat through in books and movies for years. For instance, one sequence in Night of the Death Train has that inevitable "fight on top of a moving train," this time taking place between Jim West and an assassin. Vaughan takes the time, in very descriptive language, to mention how darn hard it is to hold a fistfight/shootout on the top of a bouncing railroad car wooshing along at about 35 m.p.h., which may seem like a snail's pace on the interstate, but isn't when you're trying to duck bullets and keep your balance.

Probably what makes the novels--any Wild Wild West literature that I've ever read, really--less compelling that any of the filmed episodes is that I haven't seen an author yet who could capture the magic wrought by Ross Martin in the role of Artemus Gordon. Did anyone ever really watch this show for Robert Conrad? Okay, Jim West was handsome, resourceful, athletic, agile, and intelligent and Conrad did a great job with the "hero" role. But what made West different from any other run-of-the-mill adventures was Artie Gordon and his disguises. See that doddery professor of music? The pompous German general? The effete cook? The two-faced hellfire preacher? Presto-chango, and it's Artemus Gordon, who was also handsome (at least I thought so), resourceful, athletic, agile and even more intelligent--not to mention he was a good cook and a wine connoisseur! It was a treat every week to see Martin's new disguise. The few weeks when an ailing Ross Martin was replaced by other "agents" (played well but not as delightfully by Charles Aidman and William Schallert) revealed how much of the charm of the series was tied to Artemus Gordon rather than the titular hero.

Maybe Mr. Vaughan's readers felt that as well, because this revival series ended after three books which ended up on remainder tables quickly. The pen is usually mightier than the screen--but in this case it had a hard time living up to Ross Martin.