The protagonist of THE SNAKE DEN is fourteen-year-old Shawn Brodie, who is sent to Arizona’s infamous Yuma Prison for stealing beef, even though he’s actually innocent of the crime. Once he’s locked up, Shawn faces all sorts of trouble, mostly from the brutal and perverted head of the guards but also from the sinister, crippled inmate who runs the prison’s criminal underground, a Mexican outlaw determined to escape, and assorted other inmates who become Shawn’s enemies for one reason or another. After one ruckus, Shawn gets tossed in the Snake Den, the solitary confinement cell built into a cave where rattlesnakes can crawl in with the prisoners.
However, not everybody is out to make life miserable for Shawn. His cellmates turn out to be decent sorts: a gambler who teaches Shawn how to play cards, a gunfighter who gives him the fundamentals of handling a revolver, and a man everybody takes for Chinese but who really isn’t, who teaches Shawn the martial arts. Shawn also has allies in the warden’s wife, the prison doctor, and a girl from Yuma who visits the prison when it’s open to the public on Sunday so the prisoners can put on boxing exhibitions and sell things they’ve made.
The prison yarn is a staple of genre fiction, and Whipple has written a very good one in THE SNAKE DEN. Having researched and written a book partially set in Yuma Prison myself, I know he’s done an excellent job of portraying that notorious hellhole. Shawn is a very likable protagonist, and the other characters are fleshed out and well-developed. Given its setting and subject matter, it’s not surprising that THE SNAKE DEN is considerably grittier than the fine Black Horse Westerns Whipple has also written under the Chuck Tyrell name. If this is an example of what we can expect from the Solstice Western line, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the books.
-- James Reasoner