Author: Gene Hackman

Published: 2011

Mood: If life keeps kicking you down lately and you need a little reassurance in the form of a predictable Western adventure about good getting back at evil.


For Gene Hackman’s fourth novel, and first Western, he opted to ditch his usual co-author and fly solo. And now that I’ve read Payback at Morning Peak, I can comfortably say… Hackman is a great actor.


I feel bad picking on a guy who’s a Western movie icon, claiming TWO of the top spots on my roundup of the best Western villains. And I do genuinely think there’s something to this story he came up with. It’s just not at the level you’d expect for someone who could easily afford a whole team of editors if he wanted to.


My initial reaction, just one chapter in, was “how can he have read as many great scripts as he’s read in his life, and think this is good?”


But there’s nothing outright terrible about Payback at Morning Peak. If you aren’t a person like me who is insanely fussy about technical aspects of writing and character development, you might actually enjoy it. The plot is pretty entertaining, if frequently a bit improbable. And you get a lot of colourful characters, albeit one-dimensional ones.


It’s just nowhere near as good as it should have been, coming from someone who starred in one of the best Westerns of all time, Unforgiven.


photo of the payback at morning peak paperback against a pile of dead leaves


Payback at Morning Peak doesn’t beat around the bush.


Within two pages Jubal Young is returning to his homestead to find his life literally up in flames. His mother has been raped and murdered. His teenage sister is missing, and he soon finds that she, too, was violated and she succumbs to her injuries. His father has been hanged in their barn and is being tortured, so Jubal has to mercifully shoot him from his hiding spot.


Jubal, just a teenager himself, sets out after the men who did it. His quest for justice – or revenge – makes up the rest of the novel. Except the times where he does random side quests like getting a job at a hotel or mining for gold, and you’re like, wait, what is happening? Why did we stop?


Along the path to vengeance, Jubal encounters belligerent lawmen, belligerent outlaws, a kindly judge, a kindly mountain man, and of course, a pretty girl who makes it all worthwhile.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Here are my biggest criticisms of Payback at Morning Peak. You know I love a bullet list.


  • The characters are pretty thin, and do everything you’d expect them to do within their trope
  • The writing flip-flops between being so simple it feels like a high school student wrote it, and incredibly detailed about specific things Hackman clearly knows well, like guns and horsemanship
  • The way many of the adults talk to Jubal feels unnatural, especially Judge Wickham and Bob
  • There are a few awkward spots where it feels like sentences are missing, like when a letter is suddenly being narrated but Jubal didn’t have a letter and you don’t know where it came from, or the story just jumps to a new topic or time without transition
  • The language is often repetitive, using the same adjectives just a few sentences apart
  • Some of the plot points are way too convenient, especially toward the end

The biggest issue of all, though, is that Jubal has no major flaws so he doesn’t feel realistic. He’s not relatable.


He’s brave and loyal. He’s gifted at riding, shooting, doing physical tasks, reading and writing, tracking, strategizing, and basically everything else you could need to do in the Old West. He learns to perfectly throw a knife in a short time. He picks up gold panning instantly, surrounded by lifelong prospectors having marginal luck.


And he’s always proven to be smarter than the adults. He does all the bounty hunting, saves the day in medical situations, rescues multiple seasoned lawmen from being shot, and is basically the saviour in every situation he enters.


The one time he shows immaturity and poor judgment, being caught by a woman in multiple consecutive lies, the scene quickly concludes that it “taught him something about being truthful” like the last line in a picture book. Then he goes right back to acting like he’s smarter and better than every adult around him. There’s no character arc.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


On the plus side, Payback at Morning Peak IS quite an adventure. It ranges all over the Southwestern US countryside, through challenging terrain that makes the story well-grounded in an authentic setting.


You also get heaps of good ol’ Western action, like a five-man manhunt, horseback chases, shootouts, kidnapping, and more. There are a LOT of bad guys and they are incredibly hard to kill, so it keeps the action moving really well for the most part. Hackman also doesn’t shy away from scenes of grievous wounds, death, and destruction, although he doesn’t describe any of it in visceral detail.


Payback at Morning Peak averages out to a decent read. It’s far from the worst Western I’ve ever read. It’s also better than the worst Louis L’Amour novel in the Sacketts series (Lando). I don’t regret reading it, but I doubt it’s going to stand out in my mind a month from now.