The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley
by Davis Dresser
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Valley of Savage Men
by Harry Whittington
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by Alistair MacLean
by Bill Pronzini
by Ed Gorman
Historical mysteries are all the rage these days. There are crime yarns set in ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, ancient China and, for all I know, ancient America. There are mysteries set in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Mysteries set during the Civil War period. During the Victorian era. People are reading mysteries from just about any time period you can name. Except one. Nobody's reading mysteries set in America's Wild West. Which is strange because, as Erle Stanley Gardner said in his introduction to the Triple-A Western Classics 1950 edition of The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley, by Davis Dresser (aka Brett Halliday), "the modern detective story and the modern Western have a great deal in common. ... In essence both kinds of stories are American products, like corn on the cob and blueberry pie."
(I could go into a long digression here, expounding one of my pet theories, which is that both the Western and the mystery -- at least in the form of the private eye novel -- can be traced back a long way together, back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Then I'd track them forward through Beowulf to Malory's account of Arthur's Round Table and on to James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. It's my contention that the so-called "Code of the West" originated with Natty Bumppo, and that from there it developed the unwritten rules followed by The Virginian and by private eyes from Philip Marlowe to Spenser. But I'll restrain myself.)
As Gardner was saying before I so rudely interrupted him, "[I]t is not surprising that the [mystery and the Western story] should go so well in combination. ... There is, to be sure, a certain element of mystery in the majority of Westerns." Well, if not mystery, then certainly crime fiction. After all, what are Westerns about? Murder, extortion, robbery (banks, stagecoaches, trains, Wells Fargo offices, you name it), kidnapping and rustling, that's what. And of course they are about the stranger who comes into the corrupt town and cleans it up, pretty much the way the Continental Op does in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
So it should come as no surprise that quite a few mystery and crime writers have been attracted to the writing of the Western. Most mystery fans know that Elmore Leonard wrote Western novels and stories for years before turning his hand to more contemporary topics. There are those who would argue that Leonard is still writing Westerns. Alex Grant, in his review of When the Women Come Out to Dance on hackwriters.com, remarked that "Elmore Leonard has unceasingly reinvented the stock figures and the clichéd events of the run-of-the-mill Western by transposing them to the modern world of big city intrigue and mayhem without damaging the pristine appeal and mythic power of a good cowboy yarn." Read City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit if you don't believe it.
Other writers who have published in both fields include me, Harry Whittington, William L. DeAndrea, James M. Reasoner, John D. MacDonald, L.J. Washburn, Bill Pronzini, Ed Gorman, Donald Hamilton, Loren D. Estleman, Joe R. Lansdale, the aforementioned Dresser (who, under his Halliday pseudonym, created the Mike Shayne detective series), Richard Jessup, Frank Gruber, Joe Gores, James Lee Burke, Robert J. Randisi, Alistair MacLean and Robert B. Parker. (Not only has Parker written his own Western novel, Gunman's Rhapsody, but he was one of the screenwriters on the TNT movie version of Jack Schafer's Monte Walsh).
Most of the Westerns by those writers I just mentioned, and books by plenty of other authors as well, have the virtues we associate with the best in mystery fiction: good writing, clever plotting, a vivid sense of place, three-dimensional characters and vigorous storytelling.
So why aren't readers flocking to Westerns as they are to other "history mysteries"? I have a couple of ideas on that subject.
Maybe nobody these days is interested in the Old West of the 19th and early 20th centuries, either its reality or its mythology. In the late 1950s, you couldn't turn on a TV set in the evening without finding a Western show. Now there's only one: USA Network's Peacemakers, with Tom Berenger as a small-town Colorado sheriff who's introduced, grudgingly, to the developing wonders of forensic science -- an updated version of the 1970s Richard Boone series, Hec Ramsey. There's hardly ever a Western movie in the theaters, and if there is one, it's probably something like American Outlaws, about which the less said, the better. And the Westerns section of your local Giant Chain Bookstore has shrunk to a shelf or two of titles, if that. If no one is interested in Westerns, then I don't have a solution to the problem.
It could be, however, that a lot of older readers (my age, in other words) are afraid that Westerns are a form of juvenile entertainment, something like they used to see on Saturday afternoons, with Al "Fuzzy" St. John trailing Buster Crabbe around, while making really lame jokes, or with Roy, Gene or Eddie Dean breaking into song when not chasing the bad guys down some dusty trail.
If that's the problem, then all people have to do is pick up a Western by any of the crime writers I have already mentioned and give it a read. They'll quickly have their minds changed about what a Western mystery can accomplish. Here are five books to get you started:
1. The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley (1940), by Davis Dresser. In his introduction, Erle Stanley Gardner says that he recommends this novel "because of its successful combination of the modern detective story and the Western." The crime here is murder, by lynching, of several ranchers in Sleepy Valley. The "amateur sleuths," as Gardner calls them, are Twister Malone and Chuckaluck Thompson, and their names alone are enough to put off anyone who's already decided not to read a Western. If that doesn't do it, their dialogue will ("Chuckaluck, yo're allus lookin' on the dark side of things.") However, the two sleuths are the only ones in the book who talk like that, and the plot does involve clues and detection. The story's solution might seem a bit simple to today's readers, but this book is a good early example of a successful attempt to join the detective story to the Western novel.
2. Valley of Savage Men (1965), by Harry Whittington. Whittington wasn't a great stylist, but he knew how to tell a story. In this book, Hayes Dushane is looking for the killer of his brother, who's found dead 100 miles away from where he was living and working. And no one knows how he got there. Even people along the trail claim not to have seen him. This is a mystery with clues and detection, but also there's plenty of action along the way. Dushane robs a grave, re-buries the body, is roped and dragged behind a horse, and gets clubbed in the head with a rifle butt. All before page 20. And while some folks might object to the way that Dushane arrives at the solution to this mystery, the pages will fly by until he does.
3. Breakheart Pass (1974), by Alistair MacLean. There was a time when Scottish novelist MacLean was the premier thriller writer on both sides of the Atlantic. (Ask anyone who's read some his early books, if you don't believe that. Better still, read one yourself.) His forte was putting extremely competent heroes into situations that required physical strength, endurance and intelligence, and his plots were often quite complex mysteries. He was a little past his prime when he wrote Breakheart Pass, about an accused killer who's taken on board a train loaded with medical supplies, relief troops and more than its fair share of troublemakers. Still, the book is a lot of fun, with one surprise after another (you never know just who's on the side of the ungodly and who's not in a MacLean novel), and enough action for two or three volumes. It rips along right until the breathless conclusion, and even the one embarrassing technical glitch probably won't bother anyone too much.
4. Quincannon (1985), by Bill Pronzini. Opium addiction, counterfeiting and silver mining all figure into this fair-play mystery. Pronzini, best known for his Nameless Detective series, is a master at this sort of thing, blending authentic 1890s historical detail seamlessly into the plot. John Quincannon, a secret service agent-turned-private detective in San Francisco, also appears in a number of short stories collected in Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1999), in which Pronzini combines Western ambience with fair-play detection. For the purists, this collection even includes locked-room problems and impossible crimes. The Quincannon stories or the novel would be good places for someone in search of a different kind of "history mystery" to begin reading. Alternatively, try Beyond the Grave (1986), by Pronzini and his wife, Marcia Muller. In that book, Quincannon looks into a case in 1894 that neatly parallels an investigation undertaken by Mexican-American art museum curator Elena Oliverez in 1986. Contemporary and historical crimes merge in one story.
5. Relentless (2003), by Ed Gorman. Marshal Lane Gordon arrests the son of Paul Webley, the most powerful man in Skylar, Colorado, and almost immediately a man is murdered. The accused killer is Morgan's wife. Morgan has to deal with his spouse's past, the formidable opposition of Webley and the suspicions of the townspeople as he tries to find out the truth, which turns out to be as surprising to the reader as it is to Morgan. This is a fine recent example of a Western mystery that works perfectly well in both areas and shouldn't be overlooked by anyone interested in the combination of the two.
But wait. There's more. Anybody who likes Jim Thompson should give The Desperado (1950), by Clifton Adams, a try. It seems like Tall Cameron just has to keep killing people, but the way he sees it, it's never his fault. He's just a sweet, misunderstood cold-blooded killer.
Everyone seriously interested in good crime writers (and good crime writing) already knows about Elmore Leonard. But how many people have read his Westerns? If they haven't, they're missing out on some fine hard-boiled writing. My personal favorite is Valdez is Coming (1970), but there are many who prefer Hombre (1961) or The Bounty Hunters (1953). There's a lot to be said for each of these, and you can't go wrong with any of them.
James Lee Burke turned to the Civil War and Reconstruction for his 2002 novel, White Doves at Morning, but before he started writing his award-winning mysteries, he did a Western novel called Two for Texas (1982) that features the same powerful imagery and descriptive writing found in his later work. The novel begins with two prisoners escaping in a scene as exciting as anything Burke has written, and one of the escaping prisoners happens to be a member of the Holland family, the great-grandfather of Billy Bob Holland, narrator of the contemporary mystery Heartwood (1999). Two for Texas is set during the 1836 Texas Revolution, and while it isn't as evocative as Burke's mysteries, it's certainly worth looking into for the writing alone.
Gunman's Rhapsody (2001) is Robert B. Parker's take on the story of Wyatt Earp's Tombstone days, enjoyable not so much for what he has to say as the way he says it, in the style he's perfected in his novels about contemporary Boston private eye Spenser. And Spenser gets involved in his own shoot-'em-up hijinks in Potshot (2001), a modern Western in which Parker cribs freely from The Magnificent Seven, with Spenser and his usual contingent of compadres cleaning up the town of Potshot, Arizona.
The Matt Helm novels by Donald Hamilton certainly comprise one of the best hard-boiled spy series ever. But the Sweden-born Hamilton also wrote a number of fine Westerns, several of which were filmed. The Big Country (1957) is one of them. Smoky Valley (1954), filmed as The Violent Men, is another. Anyone who found the Helm novels appealing is likely to enjoy Hamilton's other work.
L.J. Washburn's books about Lucas Hallam, a former Texas Ranger who works as a stuntman in the early days of Hollywood, are historical mysteries that were published before such books became popular. Hallam's values were formed on the frontier, and he'd be at home in any novel about the Old West. Dog Heavies (1990) is a good place to start reading about him. Washburn's pure Westerns are also worth finding. Ghost River (1988) or Riders of the Monte (1990) should appeal to crime-fiction readers.
Joe Lansdale won a Best Novel Edgar Award for The Bottoms (2000), a mystery set in the 1930s, but one of his earliest books was a Western, Texas Night Riders (1983), written under the pseudonym Ray Slater. Lansdale is a most distinctive author, and his Westerns are unlike any others you're ever likely to encounter: wild, strange and weirdly hilarious. Read The Magic Wagon (1986) and Dead in the West (1986), if you don't want to take my word for it. And then when you're feeling really adventurous, try Zeppelins West (2001), a fantastical and sometimes ribald yarn that makes the others seem almost normal.
James Reasoner has written so much in so many fields under so many names that it's hard to know where to begin, but his first book was a much sought-after private eye novel, Texas Wind (1981). Many of his Westerns are well-plotted mysteries, including those in the Big Earl Stark series. Stark's Justice (1994) and The Diablo Grant (1995) are excellent examples.
Another prolific writer is Bob Randisi. He's done almost every kind of mystery there is: historical, amateur sleuth, hard-boiled, private eye, serial-killer thriller. He's the creator of a long-running Western series, The Gunsmith, and he's also the writer of the Gunsmith novels. He writes standalone Westerns and edits anthologies of mystery and Western short stories. (In his spare time, he's a karaoke singer, but that's another story). The Ham Reporter (1986) is a historical mystery set in 1911 when former Dodge City lawman Bat Masterson was working as a sports writer in New York City, and a good crime-related Western to look for is Miracle of the Jacal (2001), about the famous lawman Elfego Baca.
Loren Estleman's work in both the mystery and Western fields is all so well done that I'm tempted to say that you could pick up one of his books at random and find a winner. And it's true. While he's best recognized for his novels about modern Detroit P.I. Amos Walker (Sinister Heights, Poison Blonde), his stories about Deputy U.S. Marshal Page Murdock would make fine introductions to the field of Western mysteries, since all of them have to do with crimes of one kind or another. In fact, The Stranglers (1986) deals with lynching, as does Dresser's The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley, but Estleman's approach is different, and it's a good book to read before picking up The Master Executioner (2001), about a professional hangman and the criminals he executes. The newest Murdock novel, due out in January 2004, is Port Hazard, set in San Francisco's raucous Barbary Coast district.
The first winner of the Nero Wolfe Award for mystery fiction was William DeAndrea, and that award may have had some influence on him when he wrote Written in Fire (1995), a Western featuring Quinn Booker and Lewis "Lobo" Blacke. Blacke is an ex-lawman confined to a wheelchair, and Booker is his biographer and assistant. The book is more than just a clever pastiche of Rex Stout's work, however. It's a very well-constructed and entertaining mystery in its own right. DeAndrea completed a sequel, The Fatal Elixir, before his death in 1996. It was published a year later.
Last, and probably least in this illustrious crowd, there's me. I've written quite a few mystery novels, and the ones in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series sometimes get shelved in the Western section (the books are about a sheriff, and he's from Texas). But I've also written Western novels, and A Time for Hanging (1989) is a straight mystery that just happens to be set in the 1880s instead of the 1980s when it was written.
That's not all, but it's enough for now. Western mysteries are all around, and anyone who refuses to read them because they feature horses and Colt revolvers is missing some wonderful reading. | December 2003
Bill Crider is the Texas-reared and Anthony Award-winning author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, which includes his brand-new novel, Red, White and Blue Murder. He's also the author of We'll Always Have Murder, which introduces a new series featuring Humphrey Bogart as a celebrity sleuth.