Outlaw in Paradise
Although Patricia Gaffney has since moved on to women’s fiction, her 1997 western has just been reissued in trade size. Outlaw in Paradise is the first I’ve read by her, and while I enjoyed it, it left me feeling somewhat ambiguous.
Cadence “Cady” McGill owns a saloon in Paradise, Oregon, and does fairly well for herself. Of course, she doesn’t have many friends, other than her Black, Buddha-reading bartender Levi and his adorable and very excitable young son Ham. Respectable women wouldn’t come near Cady with a ten foot pole since everyone knows that lady saloon owners aren’t very ladylike, and who knows what they do with their gentleman customers? Well, Cady knows: she serves them beer, deals them blackjack, and kicks their drunk behinds out of her establishment at closing time. End of job description. So there she is, successful but lonely, when an infamous gunfighter by the name of Gault rides into town and turns things upside down.
Jesse Gault is riding his reputation for all its worth. Everybody knows he’s a ruthless killer, and everybody’s got a guilty conscience. At least, the ones Jesse does business with do. And he can make a lot of money off that fact – which is precisely what he does. His own conscience, apparently, never comes into it, until a certain saloon owner gets under his skin. Pretty soon, he finds himself sticking around Paradise well longer than he should, knowing he’ll be in trouble if he stays, but unable to leave.
So here’s my problem. I liked both Cady and Jesse – basically – and wanted to see them get together. They’re both interesting and likable people, and I wanted them to be happy. However, as much as I liked Jesse – and it’s hard not to, watching him treat young Ham like his best buddy and acting like a decent guy most of the time – I also found that I didn’t trust him. He’s basically a con artist, bilking the conscience-heavy wherever he goes. We’re told how he gets started on this course, but we’re not shown any sign that he sees anything ethically wrong with what he’s doing. In fact, the author goes so far as to show him thinking that it was okay because the people he bilked were lowlifes who deserved to lose their money; in other words, two wrongs apparently make a right, at least if there’s profit involved. This would be okay early on, if I felt that later the character truly reformed or repented any of this. But Jesse continues to deceive and betray Cady’s trust long after it was really necessary to the plot, and I never believed his apologies or protests of being misunderstood. There was also an opportunity for the characters to join forces and develop an “us against them” mentality toward their mutual enemies, but instead we see Jesse being deceitful and self-serving – and Cady forgiving him for it, with little protest.
While I found this to be a major stumbling block as the story drew to a close, the ride was certainly enjoyable. Gaffney’s prose is lyrical and earthy, and the characters and descriptions flow right off the page. The plot takes its time to unfold, yet the urge to return to the book, once put down, is always rewarded by a beautifully painted scene or a revealing peek into a character’s thoughts, and a sensible, believable plot that inevitably draws two intriguing people together in an unhurried and realistic way.
I would have liked Outlaw in Paradise better had Jesse’s moral ambiguity resolved itself before the end of the book, but even so, it’s an enjoyable read. I recommend it – with reservations, as noted – but I recommend it just the same.