Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tom Roan's 1936 "Loot Island"

Although he wrote novels and other types of stories, Tom Roan is best known as the author of hundreds of stories published in the western pulp magazines from the late 1920's until the early 1950's. He's also one of those authors whose life is more unbelievable than most of his fiction.

Roan was born in Snead on Sand Mountain in December 1892. His poor family moved frequently as the men sought jobs. At one point the family lived in Cardiff near Birmingham where his father William worked in a coal mine. Roan left Alabama on a freight train when he was fifteen and headed west.

He ended up in San Francisco, but that was only one of many stops during the next two decades. He served in the U.S. Army from 1913 until 1917, much of the time in Hawaii. Around that period Roan fought for Pancho Villa in Mexico, and worked in a circus, as a private detective and a marshal in various western towns. He was said to have killed five bad men during those days.

Roan returned to Alabama in 1930 with his first wife Marjorie. Soon they were living in Collinsville in DeKalb County. The following year Roan shot Dr. William Preston Hicks several times during a drunken brawl at Roan's home. Three trials later, in 1933, he was finally acquitted. During his time in jail he requested a typewriter so he could keep writing stories. Dr. Hicks, born in 1889, was a 1913 graduate of the Birmingham Medical College.

Marjorie and their daughter left Alabama during the trials, and she divorced Roan. The daughter was later killed in a car wreck in California. Roan would marry again, but they had no children. He died on July 1, 1958, in Sea Bright, New Jersey. He is buried in Fair View Cemetery in Middletown, New Jersey. 

Two early novels are autobiographical portraits of Roan's young days in Alabama. Stormy Road was published in 1934 and set in Attalla where Tom spent part of his youth. Black Earth came out the following year and is set in the coal mines around Birmingham. 

The story under discussion here, "Loot Island," is a real potboiler and set in Alabama. Two federal agents, G-men McGee and Lumbard, have arrived on an island in Lonesome Swamp pounded by "sheets of Alabama rain." They are following Crash Finnegan and his gang of thieving murderers who have hidden out in the "Treacherous Alabama Swamplands." Their loot consists of jewelry and almost three hundred thousand dollars. Their speed boat is ready to take them away if they need to say "good-by Alabama, hello, South America or some other safe places...[if] Washington got too nosey."

The local prison warden is skeptical of the need to search for the gang. "When a prisoner gets away and gets into it [the swamp], we usually let him go. If he's too bad, we watch the rims of the swamp. It's the hell-hole of Alabama." Nevertheless, he loans the agents a trusted prisoner named Rip, "a fearless Negro serving life imprisonment for the murder of one of his kind" who had "the highest recommendation his big, fat-jowled warden could possibly give him." Rip brought along two hound dogs to help in the hunt.

During that first night Rip and the dogs are murdered, and the convoluted chases back and forth over the island begin. Things are complicated by the "Swamp Rabbits", families who live on the island and don't seem to have much to do but visit each other and make "the traditional corn whiskey of Alabama." One of these denizens is the lovely girl Ann Crow, who can shoot as well as the rest of them and who quickly develops a thing for Lumbard. The feeling is mutual, of course.

At first the Swamp Rabbits are as suspicious of the federal men as they are of the recently arrived crooks, but soon the two groups work together. Chases, gun battles, fires, journeys through underground passageways and I don't remember what else ensue. We do get some lectures on how these people ended up in the swamp--escaping "damned Yankee carpet-baggers an' their kind what come down outa Yankeeland to take over the state" of course.  

Naturally this tale has a happy ending The crooks are vanquished and there is hope for the young lovers to get together in the future. "I reckon I'm not your kind," lovely Ann Crow tells Lumbard. "You see, I've never been about much, but I'm thanking you for coming. You have done us a good turn. The Swamp Rabbits never forget. But--but come back if you really do feel like coming back, I--I reckon I'll be here sorter just a-waitin'."

Who could refuse that invitation??

You can find Roan's story here. It was originally published in the September 19, 1936, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. The table of contents for the issue can be found below. Roan shared space with at least two other prolific authors, Norman A. Daniel and Judson P. Philips. That magazine's history is about as convoluted as Roan's plot in this story. 

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