Thursday, August 11, 2011

For a Few Westerns More

About a month ago, I posted here about my new obsession with reading Westerns. It’s a genre that I’d been fairly unschooled in, which is odd considering that I’ve always loved Western movies.
But then I started hammering out the beginnings of a new novel, and realized it would only work as a Western. So I decided I’d best get more familiar with the genre.
I’m awful glad I did. Even if I wasn’t in the early stages of my own Western, I’d still be enjoying the hell out of most of these books. Here’s my first round-up of titles, posted a few weeks ago: A Fistful of Westerns… and here’s seven more.

Quincannon- Bill Pronzini
A tight, fast novel about U.S. Secret Service agent John Quincannon, a man haunted by a horrible mistake in his past and ravaged by booze. He comes to Silver City on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters, and gets caught up in a town-wide conspiracy that can only end in fast action and bloodshed. Pronzini is amazing at spare, clean prose, and has a knack for terrifically believable characters.

Vengeance Valley- Luke Short
Owen Daybright just wants to do right by Jen, a woman wronged by another man and left to raise her baby alone. But when Jen’s brothers show up, looking for revenge against the man they feel wronged their sister, Owen becomes the target. His misplaced sense of loyalty and obligation lead to ever-escalating danger, until the explosive climax. This is one of my absolute favorite Westerns so far—Luke Short wrote most of his books in the fifties, but this one still feels modern, with great characters and a story that just keeps getting more and more tense. I immediately went out and bought more Short after reading this one.

The Badge: The Black Coffin- Bill Reno
Dave Bradford shoots and kills three outlaws when they try to steal his horse, and the folks in town mistake him for his twin brother, Dan Starr. Dave goes along with it, thinking he’ll stick around just long enough to collect the reward money, but when more outlaws come gunning, Dave finds he’s bitten off more than he can chew. To make matters worse, the real Dan Starr shows up… This one’s pretty solid, although the characters occasionally behave in ways that don’t really work, and the pacing is a bit off in places.

True Grit- Charles Portis
A simply amazing book. Headstrong14-year-old Mattie Ross contracts drunken U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who killed her father. Along with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, the quarrelsome group pursues the killer and the crew he belongs to, and Mattie learns that “true grit” comes in a number of different forms. The voice of Mattie, the narrator, is entirely engaging and original, shot through with real depth and some surprising bits of humor. I highly recommend this book.

Appaloosa- Robert B. Parker
I’m not a big fan of Parker’s Spenser novels, so I came to this one a bit dubiously. It was actually great. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch take on the job of bringing law and order to the town of Appaloosa, which has been suffering at the hands of a sleazy cattle rancher Bragg. But the job gets more complicated when Cole—a normally stoic, emotionless sort—falls hard for the beautiful and complicated Allie, a woman with a relentless desire to be with the “top stallion”. The violence that follows puts both Cole and Hitch’s ethics to the test.

Shadow of a Star- Elmer Kelton
Young Jim-Bob McClain is trying very hard to make a good deputy, but after making a fool of himself in town trying to do his job, nobody takes him seriously anymore and Jim-Bob starts to doubt himself. Until a vicious bank robber comes to town and kills Jim-Bob’s best friend—and Jim-Bob is forced to face his fears alone and prove he can do the job. This is a terrifically-written novel, with a great deal of emotional depth and a solid moral center; the choices Jim-Bob has to make are of far more consequence than simply shooting someone. In fact, part of his test of manhood involves making sure a killer isn’t lynched. A richly rewarding book, this one. There’s more Elmer Kelton on my list now.

And finally…

Death of a Gunfighter- Lewis B. Patten
This one came highly recommended by Cullen Gallagher and Mike Dennis. It took a while to track down a copy, but it was worth it. Sheriff Frank Patch has been protecting the town of Cottonwood Springs for twenty years, so when the town decides they want him gone, Patch steadfastly refuses to step down. Turns out, Patch has the goods on many of them, and they live in fear that he’ll expose them. What follows is an ever-escalating series of violent encounters as the once-respectable townsfolk take matters into their own hands, with disastrous results. The sense of doom grows stronger and stronger with every page, as things spiral out of control, and the possibility of things ever being right again recedes farther and farther. There’s a lot of dead bodies by the time it’s over, but more importantly, there’s a lot of shattered lives. Death of a Gunfighter is a seriously hardboiled Western.

So that’s seven for now. I’ll have one more round-up in another month or so.


  1. Glad to see a review of Appaloosa, as I had been wondering about that one. I tried one of the Parker novels and really did not like it. People had said I might like his Westerns more. So, it's great to see that someone who also wasn't that into the Parker stuff would like his Westerns.

  2. Well done. You definitely have hit the high spots. The western, with its location on the lawless frontier and the proliferation of firearms, is a natural genre for hardcore storytelling.