Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Book Review: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
The story is pretty straightforward. Don Diego Vega is a listless, effete caballero by day, a fearless, swashbuckling vigilante by night. He punishes the wicked and avenges the innocents who are exploited by noblemen, crooked merchants, and violent soldiers. As the "bad guys" hunt for Zorro, he's thwarting them at every turn, while "Don Diego" is friends with all the soldiers and nobles who are trying to hunt down his alter ego, and he's casually pumping them for information.
I'd love to know more about the reaction readers had the first time they were introduced to the story. Although the reader isn't told who Zorro is until he unmasks himself at the very end, reading The Curse of Capistrano, it is immediately obvious that he and Don Diego are one in the same. On multiple occasions Don Diego departs a place, and Zorro appears minutes later, and then as soon as Zorro leaves, Don Diego returns, astonished that he's missed Zorro and bemoaning "These violent, turbulent times!".
Most everyone in town loves Don Diego, as he's rich as hell, politically well connected through his father, friendly and warm with people from all stations in life, and as one person in the story put it, "no more adventuresome than a lizard sunning itself on a rock". He's a disappointment to his father and the woman he is wooing because he's such a lackadaisical slacker, but of course, Don Diego is putting on a show, so that no one could ever suspect he's the fiery, dashing Zorro. I found myself actually laughing out loud at some of Don Diego's comments about how fatiguing life is for him, and how burdensome it is to expend effort on anything beyond dreaming about "the poets" and meditating on life.
But although the plot comes off as a little hammy to a modern audience, the book definitely has plenty of action. There are swordfights and gunplay, dramatic chase sequences and capers all throughout the book. Zorro is a master swordsman and McCulley is able to write some really engaging fight sequences. Zorro isn't a bloodthirsty character, and although he does kill when he has to, by and large he only wounds or disarms his opponents - he knows most of them are simply doing their duty to oppose him, nothing more. He uses a pistol on occasion, but usually as a means to hold his foes at bay when he is outnumbered or doesn't have the time or tactical advantage needed to challenge someone to a duel.
Overall this is a great story, and lays the groundwork for almost a hundred years of Zorro tales to come. Its immediate popularity is evident, with a movie being made only a year after it was released, and he's definitely the archetype upon which many of the later "masked vigilante crusaders" of later generations are built.
The Curse of Capistrano is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook (that's how I got it) and I'm sure it can be found in EPUB as well as reprinted paperbacks, more than likely as The Mark of Zorro. If you can, pick it up - you won't regret it.