Category Archives: Tony Hillerman

Hope There’s Someone Who’ll Take Care of Me*

In Home CarersOne of the most difficult decision adults have to make is arranging for the care of elderly parents when those parents are no longer in a position to care for themselves. It’s hard enough when parents lose their physical health; it’s even harder when dementia and other cognitive losses are involved.

Different people find different solutions. A lot depends, too, on individual factors such as income, local living options, size of one’s house and space available, and so on. There are cultural factors too (more on those shortly). No solution is entirely perfect, but many families opt to have in-home carers. This offers some benefits too. For one thing, it allows elderly parents to stay in their homes, and that’s what many of them would rather do. For another, it eases the caregiving burden on the adult son or daughter.

On the other hand, even a thorough ‘vetting’ doesn’t guarantee that an in-home carer will be the dedicated individual one would hope. And there’s the issue of having someone who’s not family live in one’s home. In-home care can be very expensive, too. Still, many people take that option, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in crime fiction.

It’s  not surprising that it does. There is a rising population of adults who need such care, so it’s realistic and timely. And the context allows for lots of conflict, suspense and more.

In the years before there were well-established care homes, having an in-home carer was the only option available to those who could afford one. And in earlier centuries, those people often had no special preparation for that role. Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, for instance, takes place in 1742. Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg goes to visit local pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. When he arrives, it’s discovered that Pimbo has been shot. On the surface, it looks like a suicide, but Cragg’s friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, isn’t sure. There is pressure to simply let the case go, but Cragg respects Fidelis, and starts to ask a few questions. One important question is: who would want to kill Pimbo? In part to get some background, Cragg visits the Pimbo home. There he discovers that Pimbo’s mother lives with her son. She is cared for by the family housekeeper, Ruth Peel, who does her best. She tries to make sure her charge is comfortable and well cared-for, but she has no medical background, and of course, in 1742, not much was known about dementia. So she certainly has her hands full, as the saying goes. It’s an interesting, if not exactly happy, look at the care customs of that time.

Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They are on a sightseeing tour through the Middle East when they decide to spend a few days in Petra. On the second afternoon, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks at first like a heart attack. That wouldn’t be surprising, since she is elderly and not in good health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t quite satisfied, and asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. In this case, there are plenty of suspects. Mrs. Boynton was an unpleasant tyrant who delighted in keeping her cowed. And one of those people is her live-in nurse (and daughter-in-law) Nadine Boynton. Nadine met her husband when she came to live in with the family and look after Mrs. Boynton, and she’s had her share of abuse. But Nadine is the only person in the household who wasn’t really intimidated. She’s actually a very interesting character.

Fans of Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series will know that Sgt. Barbara Havers faces the difficult challenge of finding the best care situation for her mother. As her mother slowly begins to suffer more dementia, Havers knows that she cannot live independently. Her mother has moved in with her, but even that’s not really enough. So Mrs. Gustafson, who lives next door, helps out, and looks after Havers’ mother while Havers is on duty. But the arrangement isn’t particularly successful. Mrs. Gustafson has no medical background, and more than once Havers worries about what might happen to her mother. In For the Sake of Elena, matters come to a head when Havers’ mother leaves the house alone without anyone knowing. This situation isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does reflect the real difficulty many adult children have in trying to make the best arrangements possible for their parents. It’s a process filled with challenges.

The main character in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is former Chicago surgeon Jennifer White. At sixty-five, she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and can no longer live on her own. But as the novel begins, she still has many more lucid days than bad days. Still, her grown children have arranged a live-in carer for her, Magdalena. Magdalena is very helpful at ‘anchoring’ White on her bad days, and all goes well enough. Then one day, Amanda O’Toole, who’s lived next door to the Whites for many years, is murdered. Detective Luton is assigned the case and begins the investigation. She makes the disturbing discovery that the body was mutilated in a way that suggests the work of a surgeon, or at least someone familiar with surgical tools. And, since the Whites and O’Tooles have a long (and not entirely happy) history together, Luton is naturally interested in White as a suspect. But White’s dementia is slowly taking hold, and Luton may not be able to get the real truth from her. Throughout this novel, it’s fascinating to see Magdalena’s role as a ‘memory bank’ when White forgets things. She has her own past, too, which makes her an interesting character.

In many cultures, it would be unthinkable to hire a carer for an elderly parent. In those cultures it’s seen as the family’s responsibility to look after elderly members. For instance, in one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets a difficult case. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi has gone missing from the residential school she attends. Chee traces her to the outlying areas of Los Angeles, where she has a distant relative, Bentwoman. In the traditional Navajo culture, family members are responsible for taking care of elderly relatives, and that’s what happens in this case. Bentwoman is a very old woman, and doesn’t always speak coherently. She cannot live on her own. So her daughter lives with her and looks after her, doing everything that’s needed.

Sometimes that arrangement can work. But very often, when an elderly parent cannot be left alone, a live-in carer has to be found. That has its own benefits and challenges, but it is an option many people choose.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Antony and the Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Elizabeth George, Robin Blake, Tony Hillerman

It’s Who You Know*

NetworksMost of us are members of social networks, whether we really think about it or not. And it’s sometimes surprising how those networks come up. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever said (or heard) something like this: ‘You went to [name of university]? So did I!’ People use networks all the time to get things accomplished. Ask anyone who’s ever been in charge of an alumni donation drive for a school.

Those networks can also serve a social purpose. People who belong to exclusive clubs, for instance, have a group of wealthy, well-placed allies who can help them get things done. It might be arranging a business loan, getting a place for a child at an elite school, or something else.

We all use our networks, however casual they may be, because it’s efficient. So it’s little wonder we see these networks operating in crime fiction too. Sometimes, they serve a very useful purpose. Other times, they turn out to be deadly.

In Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, Ruth Van Rydock takes advantage of her finishing-school network. She’s become concerned about her sister Carrie Serrocold, who lives with her husband Lewis at a Victorian-Era property called Stonygates.  The place has been converted into a school for delinquent boys, so there’s a great deal of coming and going, as it were. There aren’t any obvious signs, but Ruth suspects that Carrie may be in danger, so she writes to Jane Marple, an old friend from the school she attended in Florence. Miss Marple is conscious of that school network, too, and is happy to oblige her friend. She visits Stonygates herself to see what’s going on. Tragedy strikes soon enough. Carrie’s stepson Christian Gulbrandsen, who is one of the school’s trustees, pays a business-related visit. One night, he’s shot while he’s writing a letter, and that letter goes missing. Miss Marple extends her visit to find out who the killer really is and what the motive is.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder begins when Howard Van Horn wakes up from what seems to be a blackout. That’s happened before, and it’s cause enough for concern as it is. But when he sees that he’s got blood on himself, he becomes terrified that he must have done something horrible. So he taps his school network and contacts an old friend from college, Ellery Queen, to ask for help. Queen agrees to do what he can, and together, the two begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The trail leads to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up and where his father Dietrich now lives with his second wife Sally. One night during Queen and Van Horn’s visit, Sally is murdered. As it happens, Van Horn was having a blackout that night, so he’s a natural suspect. He even comes to believe it himself. But Queen isn’t convinced, and continues to investigate. And in the end, he finds out what really happened to Sally Van Horn, and why.

There are a lot of other stories in which school networks play an important role (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night). And of course there are examples of school societies such as fraternities and sororities that also figure in crime fiction. But school networks are by no means the only ones.

In many cultures, extended family serves as a network. In those cultures, any kind of kinship status entitles one to hospitality, financial assistance, and so on. And some fictional sleuths find those networks to be very useful.

For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Kinship ties are particularly important within the Navajo culture. In fact, traditional Navajo introductions include references to family networks. That’s done in order to establish the relationship between two people who meet for the first time. If it comes out that there is any kinship, however distant, those two people could not consider a romantic relationship. But they could claim kinship privileges and they would assume kinship responsibilities. As fans of this series know, several of Hillerman’s novels include scenes where Chee makes use of his own family network to get information or assistance. There are also, of course, scenes where others make use of their networks to protect their kin from the police. It works both ways.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth also makes use of his family network. He is ‘just’ the village bobby for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, but his kinship ties are extended. In Death of a Cad, for instance, he investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett. At first it looks like a terrible hunting accident, but soon enough, Macbeth finds evidence that this was murder. He wants to get as much information as he can about the people present at the time of the murder, in order to work out which one(s) had a motive:
 

‘Like many Highlanders, Hamish had relatives scattered all over the world, and he was thankful he still had a good few of the less ambitious ones in different parts of Scotland.’
 

Macbeth makes a few calls to get the background he wants. And he finds out some very useful information from, in this case, his fourth cousin.

Of course, being involved in a network can be very dangerous, too. That’s especially the case if someone is believed to have betrayed that network. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a very strange case to Sherlock Holmes. His Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death followed a series of increasingly bizarre reactions and incidents. What’s especially strange is that it all seemed to start when Elias Openshaw received a letter containing five orange pips. Now John Openshaw’s father Joseph has gotten a letter containing pips as well, but he won’t go to the police about it. He’s badly frightened, though, so his son has taken the case to Holmes. When Holmes gets to the truth behind the pips, he sees that it all has to do with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War, and had (so people thought) disbanded.

There are also many novels in which members or former members of the Mob pay a very high price for anything perceived as betrayal.  Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, for instance, is the story of Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who’ve recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. They’ve got more than the usual challenges that ex-pats often face, though. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob who was targeted when he became a federal witness against the group. Now he and his family are in the US’ Witness Protection Program, and are supposed to be looked after by its staff. But that may not be enough when word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

Most of us depend on our networks of family, fellow alumni, fellow society members, and so on. Sometimes those networks can provide invaluable support. But sometimes they draw people into very dangerous situations.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Reed Nielsen’s I Never Walk Alone, recorded by Huey Lewis and the News.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, M.C. Beaton, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman

I’ve Come to Look For America*

FireworksWhen you travel in the US, you see one thing very clearly: America is composed of a lot of very different communities. Of course, many other countries are quite diverse, and have all sorts of different smaller communities within them. Those smaller communities add depth, texture and complexity to the fabric of the country and (in my opinion) make it richer. And fortunately, there’s plenty of good crime fiction that gives readers a look at those communities. There’s not nearly enough space here to mention all of the smaller communities that make up America. Here are just a few that have added to the national tapestry.

The Native Americans were here first, and several crime fiction series and novels offer insight into their experiences. You’ll probably already likely know about the work of Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels focus on life in the Navajo Nation. These novels give a fascinating perspective on the Southwest US, among other things. But Hillerman is hardly the only writer who explores the Native American experience. So does Stan Jones, whose Nathan Active novels take place in Alaska. Active is an Alaska State Trooper, and a member of the Inupiaq Nation. Although he was raised in Anchorage, Active now lives and works in the small town of Chukchi. This series does feature crime and its investigation. But it’s also a look at life among the Native Americans who live in Alaska. There’s also Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Father John O’Malley series. Those novels take place mostly on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, among the Arapaho people. Holden is a member of that community; she’s also an attorney. As she and Fr. O’Malley investigate, readers learn a lot about life among the Arapaho. There are plenty of other crime novels and series that take place among, or that feature, Native Americans (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series). To understand the United States, it’s important to have at least some understanding of the people who were here first.

Another fascinating community of the modern US is the Cajun community of (mostly) Louisiana. You’ll know from your history that they’re the descendants of Acadians, who migrated to what was then French territory after being expelled from what are today Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Cajun music, food, lifestyle and language have had a powerful impact on Louisiana. And that influence has spread as people have discovered that rich resource. James Lee Burke has shown millions of readers life among the Cajuns through his Dave Robicheaux novels. As fans will know, Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia (Louisiana) Police. He himself is a Cajun; and he certainly interacts with many other Cajuns in the course of his work. So readers get a really interesting perspective on that community.

I don’t think it’s possible to accurately discuss the American experience without discussing the Black experience. Perhaps the most important, and basic, thing about that experience is that it’s been fundamentally different to the White experience. Understanding that fact, and gaining a perspective on Black America, is important (at least I think it is) to understanding the modern USA. Walter Mosely has written a few series that explore the Black experience. His Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins novels take place in Los Angeles in the years just after World War II, and leading up to and through the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. In those novels, we follow Rawlins, who starts out as an informal PI, but later gets his license. Another of his series features Leonid McGill, a modern-day New York PI. What’s interesting is that a comparison of this series shows that the Black experience is not identical across the country. What’s more, it’s not identical over time. You could say the same thing about Attica Locke’s work. Her novels explore both the Houston area and Louisiana, both in the present day and the recent (and not at all recent) past. Throughout those stories, we see the complexity as well as the evolution of the Black community.

No less rich and complex is the US Latino community. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there really isn’t one Latino community. Still, for the sake of space, there are crime writers who’ve explored the Latino experience in America. One is Manuel Ramos. His Denver-based attorney Luis Móntez was at one time involved in the Chicano activist movement. When we meet him in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, he has to return to that past when he learns that several other former activists – members of El Movimiento – are dying. The key seems to be their history and their possible involvement years ago in the death of one of their own, Rocky Ruiz. Steven Torres’ Precinct Puerto Rico series features Luis Gonzalo, a small-town Puerto Rico Sheriff. There are plenty of other novels, too, that depict different Latino communities.

Just about every major American city has a Chinatown of one sort or another. The Chinese community in the US has become a unique blend of traditional Chinese culture, language and lifestyle with elements of the surrounding culture. And the list of ways in which that Chinese culture has influenced the US would go on for far too long. Both S.J. Rozan and Henry Chang explore life in New York’s Chinatown. And Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons takes a look at life in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

There are plenty of other smaller communities in the US, too. For instance, Linda Castillo explores the Amish community in her Kate Burkholder novels. And Mette Ivie Harrison depicts life in the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) community in The Bishop’s Wife. All of these communities are unique and distinctive.

But here’s the thing. They are also all American. So although every community’s experience is different, there’s also a shared history. Stitching all of this together to form a national identity is an extremely complicated, sometimes horribly messy, and always fascinating process. After 239 years, it’s still a work in progress. It’ll be exciting and interesting to see where the journey takes us next. Happy Independence Day/Fourth of July to those who celebrate it!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s America.

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Filed under Attica Locke, Craig Johnson, Henry Chang, James Lee Burke, Linda Castillo, Manuel Ramos, Margaret Coel, Mette Ivie Harrison, Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Stan Jones, Steven Torres, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman

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.

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