But the Cowboy and the Rancher Knew His Name*

WesternsMany people find a real appeal in what I’ll call Westerns, whether books, film or television. Even if you don’t care for them yourself, you no doubt know that they have a strong following. There are arguably several reasons so many people love Westerns, just as there are a lot of reasons for which people have moved to ‘the wide open spaces.’

One of the allures of Westerns and their settings is the chance to start over in beautiful, open land. We see that, for instance, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s 1806, and William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children have just arrived in Sydney Cove, Sydney, to start their lives over. Thornhill is a former London bargeman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing wood. He and his family have experienced real poverty in London, so even though transportation is nerve-wracking, it’s also a chance to build new lives. Before very long, Thornhill finds work delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. One day, Thornhill finds a piece of irresistibly beautiful land, and sets about to claim it. And therein lies the problem. People have been living in what is to become New South Wales for many thousands of years, and it’s not long before there are serious, even bloody and brutal, conflicts between the two groups. Grenville doesn’t make light of the crimes committed in the name of new land and new opportunities. At the same time, we see just how tempting that land can be.

Even today, people are drawn to the prospects of open land, the chance to put the past behind, and the opportunity to start all over. That’s arguably part of what makes Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series popular. It’s also, of course, highly regarded as a well-written set of novels. But as we learn about the characters, we see a pattern of people who’ve chosen to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming because it’s beautiful, because it gives them a chance to build their own kinds of lives, and because the open land appeals to them. For instance, Longmire’s deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti is originally from Philadelphia, where she served as a police officer. She’s had her share of ups and downs in life, but she’s found a certain kind of contentment if you will in Absaroka County. Philadelphia may at times offer more conveniences, but Moretti has chosen to start over in the west. I know, I know, fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series and of Margaret Coel’s Wind River series…

‘Going West’ offers other kinds of opportunities too. As you’ll no doubt know, many people have taken the risks involved in starting over because of the discovery of gold and other precious metals. Vicki Delany’s historical Klondike series, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, has this theme as a backdrop. These novels feature Savoy Dance Hall owner Fiona MacGillivray, who’s originally from Scotland. She’s got a past that she’d just as well leave behind, and a teenage son Angus. Together, they’ve started over in Dawson, Yukon, just as the area is feeling the full effects of the gold rush. She herself isn’t in search of gold, but she knows that there are a lot of other ways to profit from the surge of newcomers. Taverns, restaurants, food and supply purveyors, dance halls, and of course assayers are all benefiting from the search for riches.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn isn’t really a westerner. She’s a retired judge who lives in Florida. But in The Desert Hedge Murders, she certainly gets a taste of the Old West. She travels with her mother’s traveling club, the Florida Flippers, on a sightseeing tour to Laughlin, Nevada. The group gets caught up in a case of murder when the body of a dead man is found in the bathroom of one of hotel rooms the club is using. Then, one of the members disappears and is later found dead in an old mine now used as a tourist attraction. As Thorn helps her mother and the rest of the group, she also experiences ghost towns, information about mining and prospecting, and legends. And burros.

For some people, the appeal of Westerns also comes from the ‘good guys v bad guys’ tension. Cattle rustlers, sheriffs, posses, outlaws and so on can tap the desire a lot of us have to see the ‘good guys’ win and the ‘bad guys’ get their due. Of course, it certainly wasn’t that simple; a quick glance at history makes that clear. But for a lot of readers and viewers, there’s a real appeal to following the adventures of ‘larger than life’ characters.

And it’s that sense of adventure that also draws many people to the Western. A lot of series and novels feature the sort of cliffhangers that you might see in old-style Western serials; one of them is Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series. The protagonist in these stories is Sister Thomas Josephine, a Roman Catholic Vistitandine nun from St. Louis, Missouri. As the series begins, she is making her way to start a new life in Sacramento. Everything changes when the wagon train she’s on is attacked in Wyoming. Left stranded there, Sr. Josephine ends up being falsely accused of murder. She goes on the run and is drawn into all sorts of dangerous situations. Sr. Josephine is definitely not your ‘garden variety’ nun…  I admit I’ve not (yet) read these stories. But I’ve already gotten a solid sense of them from the terrific Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. You’ll want to check out his great blog and see for yourself why it’s one of my must-visits.

There are also plenty of readers/viewers who are interested in Westerns because they want to know more about the people who have always lived in those areas. Novels that depict the lives of Indigenous people in the West can give readers a window on a fascinating perspective on life. And they fulfil the important role of sharing information that doesn’t always make it to the textbooks. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series, for instance, will know that those novels depict life in the modern US West/Southwest, often from the point of view of members of the Navajo Nation. Those stories give an important perspective on aspects of Western life such as mining, oil prospecting, and land and water rights. They also share the culture and lifestyle of the people who’ve lived in that area for a very long time.

We also see that perspective in Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels. Those stories give readers a look at mining, ranching and prospecting in Australia. Very often they feature the point of view of Bony, who is half White/half Aboriginal. So we see several ways of looking at the same places and events. Adrian Hyland’s books feature Emily Tempest, who’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Those novels give readers a look at modern life in the ‘great wide open’ parts of Australia.

Whether it’s the myths of the Western or the actual history of settlement, there’s something about the Western in all its forms that can draw people in. Does it have that effect on you? If so, what appeals to you about the Western? If not, what puts you off?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid, a song he refers to as ‘completely historically inaccurate.’ Still, for my money, it captures all of the adventure, danger and myth of the Western.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Kate Grenville, Margaret Coel, Patricia Stoltey, Stark Holborn, Tony Hillerman, Vicki Delany

32 responses to “But the Cowboy and the Rancher Knew His Name*

  1. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is not strictly speaking a Western, but it has that same feel of wide open spaces, a harsh system of catch or be caught, and swift retribution. Another one which strikes me as being in the same mould (although I haven’t read it yet so I may be mistaken) is Saul Black’s The Killing Lessons – a Western noir with a serial killer.

    • Oh, that’s a good one, Marina Sofia. No Country… may not be ‘officially’ a crime novel, but as you say, it certainly has that atmosphere to it. And it does capture the West. I’ll confess I’ve not read the Black either. I’m not usually one for the serial killer motif, but I try never to say ‘never’ about reading. And it’s certainly got a Western setting too.

  2. Thanks for mentioning The Desert Hedge Murders, Margot. I love that little corner of Arizona/Nevada where the old gold mining (and now touristy) town of Oatman sits.

    I read several western mystery series, especially those set in Colorado and Wyoming, so authors like Craig Johnson and C. J. Box, are favorites. Maybe it’s because I live in this part of the country now, added to the fact I read tons of westerns when I was a kid (Zane Grey, especially).

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your work 🙂 – You do live in a beautiful part of the country, Pat, and I’m not surprised that Box and Johnson are among your tops. I really like their work too, actually. And there is something about that wide open country that just lends itself to good stories, isn’t there? Perhaps that’s part of why Colorado has such a vibrant writer community.

  3. I loved the old Westerns on TV and film but haven’t really read many books about that area or period. Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ isn’t a Western obviously, since it’s set in New Zealand, but it’s brilliant at depicting that frontier, gold-rush town atmosphere. And ‘So Brave, Young and Handsome’ by Leif Enger catches the feel of the end of the cowboy era as an aged Pinkerton agent doggedly tracks the outlaw he never caught. Although the plot is a bit incredible, it gives a lovely nostalgic picture of the last days of the Old West.

    • I really like that word frontier, FictionFan. That’s what I see as a common thread running through The Luminaries, Kate Grenville’s work, and some of the stories (like the Enger) of the American Old West. There are other authors who capture that context as well. There is something adventurous and exciting about the myths of that era, so it’s little wonder you enjoyed the TV Westerns. On another note, I’ll admit I’ve not read that Enger (yet), but it does sound interesting. May even have to look it up, so thanks – I think 😉

  4. Margot, this is an interesting topic. I have been interested in reading some westerns, because it seems to me that they often feature crimes and mysteries, even though not strictly in that genre. I just haven’t tried that yet because there are so many books to read. I will be interested to see what you think if you try the Nunslinger stories.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Tracy, about too many books to read! I think you’re right that a lot of Westerns do feature crimes of some kind; there’s probably quite an overlap of genre between the Western and the crime novel. And yes, I’ll definitely have more to say about the Nunslinger series if I get to it.

  5. I’m not a big Western fan, but I do love Longmire. And I really enjoy hearing about American Indian culture and rituals (my grandfather was half Indian), which often goes along with mid-Western areas. That really makes me sound complex. *shrugs*

    • I don’t know that I’d say ‘complex,’ Sue. There are different sorts of Westerns, just as there are many different kinds of crime novels. So the fact that some appeal to you (like Johnson’s Longmire series) and others don’t makes a lot of sense. And I think it’s fascinating that you have a part Native American background. Little wonder you find that interesting too.

  6. Margot, I did love C J Box’s Joe Pickett series – great character based narratives and environmental themes that did not hit you over the head with activism .

  7. Col

    Margot, thanks for the kind mention of the blog. There’s a few authors above you mention that I ought to check out, Craig Johnson’s one of them.

  8. Margot: Your post was timely as my next post will involve a mystery with an almost classic Western setting.

    A Western mystery I have enjoyed that is different from the classic Westerns of Hollywood and Zane Grey is the Third Riel Conspiracy by Stephen Legault which is set in 1885 in the area of Saskatchewan before it was a province right after the Riel Rebellion. I think readers might find it interesting to see the Canadian West of yore v. the old American West.

  9. I’ve never been a fan of Westerns so hadn’t realised quite how closely they link to the themes found in crime fiction – you amaze me how you mange to find so many titles that link with the theme of your post!

    • Thanks, Cleo. It always fascinates me how many fictional genres cross and intersect in so many ways. And often, they cross and intersect with what people call genre fiction, too.

  10. Margot (I hope you don’t mind if I call you by your name), I don’t know what it is about westerns but I absolutely love reading in the genre. I wish I could read only westerns all my life. There is something about them that I find very appealing. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the battle of good versus evil, machismo of the cowboys and gunfighters, honest and crooked sheriffs, wicked saloon owners and bankers, the beautiful ranches and landscapes, the small towns and mining settlements, and the tears and triumphs of the families that live there… there is just so much happening in a western not to mention so much to read in the genre. Above all, I like the way authors romanticise their saddle stories. You have cited some fine examples in the genre most of which I have not read.

    • Prashant – First, I’m glad you call me Margot 🙂 . And about Westerns? You definitely have a strong point about the good v evil theme. It’s woven throughout a lot of Western novels. And the lifestyle seems, if I may say so, bigger than life. So I can see why you enjoy getting absorbed in those stories. There’s something almost mythical about some of the characters and of course, the scenery and setting in Westerns are beautiful too. It doesn’t surprise me that you love them as you do.

  11. I used to read a lot of westerns when I was younger, not so much now. But I have enjoyed some modern detective stories that are Western-tinged, if I can put it that way, like the CJ Box books and even the Terry Shames series.

    • Interesting, Moira, how one’s reading habits evolve over time like that. I know my own have. And I agree, there are a lot of solid Western-style crime fiction series out there (Box, Shames, Johnson, to name just three). I rather like it when an author can evoke the Western setting and also tell a good crime story.

  12. JanetF

    Your post brought back wonderful memories of my father who loved westerns. He read a great deal of Zane Grey but it was the film and TV elements of this genre that I loved. Enjoying no better time than watching High Noon or a John Wayne western with my Dad. Margot thank you for evoking those wonderful memories with your, as always, fascinating blog.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Janet. High Noon is a classic Western film; I’m glad you have good memories of watching it. I’m also happy that you have fond memories of your dad’s love of Westerns. Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour and a lot of other writers of Westerns have been, I think, a big part of a lot of people’s lives.

  13. Actually, I have just started watching the TV version of LONGMIRE and am thoroughly enjoying it – have no idea how close it is to the books though …

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the series, Sergio. I think it’s very well done. Not every episode matches closely every novel. The characters, though, are quite true to the stories. And the atmosphere, style and so on are as well.

  14. Maybe it’s because I was born a cowgirl in Medicine Hat, Alberta (where the mountains meet the prairies, rattlers roam and the best corn grows) but I love a western. I am mad for the modern westerns of Larry McMurtry – not Lonesome Dove so much but the ones with Danny Deck (All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers, Moving On) or The Last Picture Show, Texasville, Duane’s Depressed (my fave book title ever). I also hold a soft spot for Louis Lamour. Who wouldn’t? I like the mysteries of Tony Hillerman, but to me, if I want a feel of Texas it is always McMurtry I go back to.

    • Jan – I think the place where we’re raised certainly may affect how we feel about certain kinds of novels. Why should the Western be any different? I’m glad you mentioned Larry McMurty; he’s not generally thought of as a crime writer, but he certainly evokes the West just beautifully. Now you’re making me want to go back and re-read The Last Picture Show… And anyone who loves Westerns has no doubt read some of Louis L’Amour’s work, too; a lot of people think of him as a master of that genre.

  15. Westerns always have a certain appeal indeed. Nicely written, thanks for sharing!

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