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 Featured Item of the Month

updated 12/10/08

 

 


    The Featured Item this month will be Westerns in the 21st Century.  The following article is from our Novelist database which you can access from our Reader’s Choice page.  This database provides book reviews, author read-a-likes, recommended reads, as well as featured articles over many different types of books.  These articles give the reader an overview of the topic as well as some example titles for each topic covered. 

     

    Showdown in the 21st Century: New Traditional Westerns
    by John Mort

     
     

    Westerns — romances, Native American tales, biographical novels — are by definition historicals. But traditional Westerns don't pay much attention to history, or at the least don't depend on it to advance the story. Sure, they're set in the 19th Century, and take place west of the Mississippi. But the traditional Western trades on staples if you will, clichés — such as the lone gunman, the lonely schoolmarm, and the corrupt sheriff. They're about adventure, good guys and bad guys, and righting wrongs. Clichés are often based on truth, after all, and true or not, they can always be given a fresh twist. Readers like clichés. 

    Some do. What it comes down to is that older male — and quite a few female — readers read and reread Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, Max Brand, Luke Short, Will Henry, and of course, Louis L'Amour, and then complain there's nothing more for them in the universe. Such readers may really be claiming that the world no longer resembles the one they grew up in. Not much can be done about that, but even in these heady times, there are writers with much the same appeal that L'Amour had.

     

    They publish in mass market format with publishers such as Leisure Books, St. Martin's, and Morrow/Avon; and in original cloth editions from St. Martin's and Avalon. And just like Zane Grey and L'Amour, they are often reprinted in Gale's several large print formats.

    Start with these names: Peter Brandvold, Loren Estleman, Bill Brooks, Robert Conley, Johnny Boggs, Ken Hodgson, Tom Eidson, John Nesbitt, Cotton Smith, Matt Braun, and Ken Hodgson. Discussions of titles from each writer follow, but paperback writers of any stripe make their living by volume, just as L'Amour did. So if you like what you read, you can keep on going.

    Peter Brandvold's Dakota Kill, loosely modeled on The Odyssey, features Mark Talbot, an adventurer right out of L'Amour's famous Sackett clan. Talbot returns to Dakota Territory with some savings and hopes to settle down with his brother on the family ranch, but there's trouble on the range from a cattle baron named King Magnusson; and trouble as well from two feisty women. The formula may be familiar, but Brandvold can turn a phrase, his hero's vulnerabilities are believable, and every minor character is drawn well enough to escape stereotype.

    Loren Estleman is a much-honored writer both for his mysteries and his Westerns, but he's written one ongoing traditional series, Page Murdock, that features a nuanced characterization of a US Marshal in service to a tough federal judge named Harlan Blackthorne. One of the best in the series is White Desert, set in 1882 Montana. When Blackthorne dispatches Murdoch after bad men who have fled into Saskatchewan, Murdoch runs up against international politics; embittered, expatriate African-Americans; and a crazed widow who knows how to shoot. But no foe matches the Canadian winter — the white desert.

    Bill Brooks is a wonderful stylist — the rival of Estleman — and his stories sometimes astound: for instance, his astute psychological portrait of a shrewd, almost postmodern Billy the Kid in The Stone Garden. But his bread-and-butter is shoot-'em-ups, as in the ongoing Dakota Lawman series, featuring a physician who's falsely accused of murder, Jake Horn. Unable to prove his innocence, Jake flees to a Dakota Territory haven for sharpies and murderers, the town of Sweet Sorrow, where he reluctantly becomes marshal — as well as doctor and coroner. In The Big Gundown, Jake discovers a dead body on the range and won't stop asking questions. Five rough men ride into town, obviously in the pay of someone connected to the murder, and Jake knows a showdown is coming.

    Robert Conley may be best-known for his long-running historical series, published by the University of Oklahoma, telling the story of the Cherokee people in individual novels. But he also writes traditional Westerns such as The Actor, the clever, often amusing story of a disgraced Broadway actor, Bluford Steele, who flees to 1870s Nebraska, where he joins a frontier troupe. When a crooked power broker withholds the troupe's profits, Steele takes on the greatest role of his life: real-life gunfighter.

    Johnny Boggs breaks the traditional mold in some respects by taking a lot of pains with recreating history, but still his stories offer up bad guys and good guys, and plenty of action. His Camp Ford, a Civil War tale set in Texas, is also a story of early baseball, pitting Union POWs against Confederate guards in a crucial game that takes the place of the usual wild West showdown. Boggs, whose novels stay in print for a while — and who's young enough he'll be writing many more Westerns — is a good writer to follow. And Camp Ford won a Spur, the top literary award offered by the Western Writers of America.

    Tom Eidson wrote The Last Ride, later republished as The Missing, following the title of Ron Howard's 2003 film starring Tommy Lee Jones. The story features Samuel Jones, a grieving white man who has lived for many years among the Apaches, becoming a shaman; he wants to reconcile with his daughter, Maggie, before he dies. Embittered Maggie wants no part of her father until a renegade Apache steals away her daughter, setting up a classic chase-and-rescue plot Zane Grey might have envied.

    For readers not only of L'Amour, but of Elmer Kelton, a great follow-up is the cowboy stories of John Nesbitt. Like Brandvold, Nesbitt is prolific, turning out at least one mass market title a year, but a typical venture is Lonesome Range, about Lane Weller, a feckless cowpoke who falls in love with his boss's wife. Maybe the lady loves him; maybe she's using him. That Lane's boss is a dangerous man is more certain. Nesbitt's range tales, usually set in Wyoming and Colorado, are modest stories featuring humble men looking for just one break. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they just disappear into the sunset.

    Another prolific mass market writer is Kansan Cotton Smith with his tales of trail drives and gunslingers. Behold a Red Horse features a West Texas clan in the 1870s. Ethan Kerry's Bar K ranch is about to go bankrupt, but a trail drive to Kansas could bail it out. Because of his failing eyesight Ethan can't do the job alone, and reluctantly turns to his brother, Cole, an outlaw. Cole, now more or less walking the straight and narrow, returns in the sequel, Death Rides a Red Horse, on the trail of an outlaw who kidnapped his wife. No flourishes here, but L'Amour's spirit seems present on every page.

    For his sheer numbers of titles, Matt Braun comes near to matching L'Amour. Braun's plots can be creaky, as demonstrated in his Hickok & Cody, in which the two legendary Westerners come to the aid of orphan train children. But Braun won a Spur for his entertaining Dakota, in which a grieving Teddy Roosevelt takes up ranching in western North Dakota, and regains his political footing. And no one does a better gunfighter story than Braun: Outlaw Kingdom, for instance, about Oklahoma Territory federal marshal Bill Tilghman, a real-life hero who hauled in outlaw after outlaw in the 1890s.

    Finally, for comic relief — but still along traditional lines — L'Amour fans can try Ken Hodgson, particularly in Fool’s Gold. The story, set in Oregon in the 1880s, features one Jake Crabtree, a hapless, often drunken prospector with only one friend, Doc McNair. Just as his friend dies, Jake finds gold — and also finds himself presiding over a boom town. Soon, he longs to be poor again. Hodgson's humor turns cheerfully macabre in The Hell Benders, set in 1870s Kansas, about "the bloody Benders," a renegade Kansas family. The Benders deploy their voluptuous daughter to tempt travelers into their "inn," where they rob and murder "guests," even as the clan's mother quotes Bible verses.

    John Mort is a novelist who writes about fiction, and has recently completed a book for Libraries Unlimited called Read the High Country: A Guide to Westerns.
    January, 2008

     




     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     
     

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