Category Archives: Vicki Delany

Everybody Take Responsibility*

taking-responsibilityEver had the feeling that most companies and their representatives are only too happy to hide behind ‘company policy’ instead of providing good customer service? Yeah, me, too. And it can get disheartening.

But I’m here to say that it’s not always that way. Some people do take personal responsibility for what their companies do and what their customers need. Case in point: something that happened to me. Recently I had a situation with the auto insurance carrier I’ve had for decades. Without boring you with details, I’ll just say that there was a lapse in customer service – one that really disappointed me. But the story doesn’t end there. A few hours after dealing with the issue, I got a call from the representative who’d been working with me. She took personal responsibility for the choice her employer made, and took it upon herself to make things right. And she did. Among other things, it shows that there are people who do their jobs conscientiously and with integrity. It also made me an even more loyal customer. Thanks to that employee who had a sense of personal responsibility. Thanks, Liberty Mutual, for supporting that kind of integrity.

The whole situation got me to thinking about how integrity and conscientiousness can be woven through a genre such as crime fiction, in which we read about the horrible things people can do to each other. It’s got to be done deftly, or the result can be too ‘frothy.’ But it can be done.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, introduces readers to Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. He gets a call one day from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks might be very valuable, and he wants Revere to give him a sense of its worth. Revere agrees and goes to the shop. Much to his shock, the painting appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere is concerned about such a valuable item left in a pawn shop, and asks to take the art with him while he does some further investigation. This Pawlovsky refuses to do, and, in the end, Revere doesn’t fight him on the subject. He leaves for a few hours of research. When he gets back, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels a real sense of responsibility that he didn’t work harder to keep his friend safe, so he decides to at least find out who killed him. The trail leads all the way back to World War II, when the painting was originally ‘borrowed for safekeeping’ by the Nazis.

In Giles Blunt’s 40 Words For Sorrow, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Detective John Cardinal learns that a body has been discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. It’s soon established that it’s the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who went missing five months earlier. Cardinal was assigned to that original case, and was never able to solve it. He takes personal responsibility for that, and goes himself to visit her mother and tell her the news – something that must be extremely difficult. He also takes responsibility for this new angle on the case, and follows the leads he gets. In the end, he’s able to discover who the killer is.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts is the first in his series featuring sometimes-lawyer Jack Irish. He’s just coming back to life, so to speak, after the murder of his wife, and has been spending quite a bit of time at the bottom of a bottle. Unfortunately, that’s the state he was in when Danny McKillop was arrested for a drink driving incident that ended in the death of a Melbourne-area activist named Anne Jeppeson. Now McKillop’s out of prison, and wants to meet with Irish. But by the time Irish gets to it, McKillop’s been shot. Irish already feels responsible for McKillop’s imprisonment; he did a horrible job of representing him and he knows it. So he does what he can now to at least make things right for McKillop’s family. He digs into the case more, and finds that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death, and that this ‘accident’ was quite deliberate.

In one plot thread of Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, Trafalgar (British Columbia) Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith discovers that her best friend, Christa Thompson, is being stalked by Charlie Bassing. Smith advises her friend to swear out a complaint and get a restraining order, but that doesn’t go very well. What’s more, Smith’s dealing with a murder case at the moment, and it’s occupying her time. So she doesn’t really follow up. Then, the stalking turns very ugly. Smith feels responsible for what’s happened, and believes that the system (and she!) should have done a better job of protecting Thompson. So she takes it on herself to try to make things right. It’s extremely awkward and difficult, because the whole thing has ruptured the friendship. But Smith isn’t satisfied to just ‘put it in the files.’

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a similar feeling in The Hanging Tree. One day she gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants her to investigate the twenty-year-old disappearance of Orla’s brother, Callum. Unfortunately, Orla’s drunk when she calls, and not particularly coherent, so Scarlett puts the matter aside. Then one day, she learns that Orla has committed suicide (or was it?). She feels a real sense of responsibility, especially since she’d brushed the victim off. Now Scarlett takes it on herself to dig into the mystery of Callum Payne’s disappearance, and find out what happened to him, and how that might be linked with his sister’s death.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been gathering background information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. As a part of that, she’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day, ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin knows that the victim’s safety was her responsibility, and she’s determined to try to make things right by at least finding out who killed her contact. That conscientiousness puts her at odds with her employer, and in very grave danger.

We all have stories, I’m sure, of people who didn’t have that sense of personal responsibility and integrity. I know I do. Once in a while, it’s nice to remember that there are people who act conscientiously – even in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Nylons’ Human Family.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Annie Hauxwell, Giles Blunt, Martin Edwards, Peter Temple, Vicki Delany

Just Trying to Decide*

Difficult DecisionsThere are some decisions that involve real questions of conscience. Those decisions can be among the most difficult to make, because people have such different perspectives on them. Do you take that job with a company you know pollutes the atmosphere (because the money and chances for advancement are good, and maybe you can change it from within)? Do you defend the right of someone whose views you find repugnant to demonstrate? These are just two examples of the kinds of decision I have in mind. There are many, many others.

Such decisions can add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime novel. They’re sources of conflict, and they are realistic. There’s not very much space in just this one post for me to mention them all, so here are just a few. I know you’ll think of many more.

One of the most difficult and painful decisions a person ever makes is whether to have (or perform) an abortion. I won’t get into the moral and political issues involved here. This is a crime fiction blog, not a blog about politics, religion or morality. Suffice it to say that it’s a wrenching decision. We see that in Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name of Jeffrey Hudson. The novel takes place in 1968 Boston, a time when abortion was not legal in the U.S.  Dr. Arthur Lee, an obstetrician at Boston’s Memorial Hospital, is arrested in connection with the death of Karen Randall. The charge is that he performed an illegal abortion which he botched, causing her death. Lee asks his good friend, pathologist Dr. John Berry, to help clear his name. Berry knows that Lee performs abortions, but Lee assures him that Karen Randall’s wasn’t one of them. Berry doesn’t want to see his friend wrongfully imprisoned, so he agrees to see what he can find out. This runs him directly up against the highest levels of authority at the hospital, since the victim was the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful doctor. Berry finds out the truth about Karen’s death; as he does, we see just how controversial the decision to have or perform abortions really is.

I touch on the same issue in my Joel Williams novel Past Tense. It’s out for submission right now (I could really use some happy thoughts, please!), so as you can imagine, elements of it may change. But as it is, a set of bones dating from the early-to-mid 1970s is discovered on the campus of Tilton University. Former police officer turned professor of criminal justice Joel Williams takes an interest in the case when he finds out about it from a colleague. He learns that one of the people who may be involved is another colleague who was a student at Tilton during that time. That’s when she faced the difficult question of what to do when she found she was pregnant. Abortion had recently become legal in the US, so she made the choice to have the procedure. As her story shows, it’s a wrenching decision.

So was the decision about whether to participate in the Vietnam War. There were many young people who took seriously what they saw as their duty to country to serve in that war. We see that in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. The protagonist of that novel is octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, who’s moved from his native New York City to Norway, so as to be nearer to his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. One day he witnesses the murder of a young woman. She’s left a small son behind, so Horowitz takes the boy with him, since he’s sure the killers will be back for the child. The two of them go on the run, trying to outwit their pursuers. In the process, we learn Horowitz’ backstory. His son (and Rhea’s father) Saul served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and was killed during the second. Horowitz actually encouraged his son to enlist in the military, giving him the message that he should give back to the country that took care of him. Since his son’s death, Horowitz has had to deal with the guilt he feels about that encouragement.

Other people’s consciences didn’t allow them to fight in Vietnam. Instead, they left the country; many went to Canada. In Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier, we meet Andy Smith, and his wife Lucy ‘Lucky’ two ex-pat Americans who moved to Trafalgar, British Colombia so that Andy wouldn’t have to fight a war he thought was immoral. In one plot thread of that novel, a group of citizens wants to create a Peace Garden in memory of those who followed their consciences and refused to fight the war. They’ve got the financial backing they need, too. Others, though, feel that the garden would be too controversial, especially given that Trafalgar is a tourist destination that can use the money that comes from American visitors. Andy and Lucky’s daughter Moonlight ‘Molly’ is a constable caught in the middle of the debate. Her job is to help keep order, and that’s not going to be very easy with feelings running so high.

In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, London psychologist Frieda Klein faces another kind of conscience-based decision. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker, who’s suffering from anxiety problems and other issues. Bit by bit, the two begin to address those issues, and Dekker tells her of a dream he’s had – a dream in which he has his own son. Dekker and his wife haven’t been able to have children, but Dekker resists adoption, so Klein sees a natural connection between Dekker’s personal situation and his dreams. Gradually, they begin working on events from his past that have impacted his current psychological situation. Then, Klein hears of a truly disturbing event: four-year-old Matthew Faraday has gone missing. Despite massive public appeals and police efforts, no trace of the boy has turned up. At first subconsciously, then actively, Klein begins to wonder if there is a link between her work with Alan Dekker and Matthew Faraday’s disappearance. She’s not supposed to reveal anything about her work with her clients, but this is different. So she makes the difficult decision to go to the police, in the form of DCI Malcolm Karlsson, with her concerns.

The decision of whether to give a child up for adoption is addressed in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck, who volunteered there at the New Life Children’s Centre. In order to find out the truth about Maryanne’s death, Keeney looks into what’s going on at New Life. She discovers that in part, its mission is to prepare children who are eligible for adoption for their new homes. As she learns how New Life really works, we learn about one toddler, Kob, who is matched with an American couple. Keeney gets involved with that process, and as she does, we see just what wrenching decisions are made when it comes to adoption.

These are only a few of the difficult choices we sometimes face. They may keep us awake at night, but they also form interesting story strands in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Babys’ Isn’t it Time. 


Filed under Angela Savage, Derek B. Miller, Jeffery Hudson, Michael Crichton, Nicci French, Vicki Delany

Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

FireplacesBeing able to make and control a fire has been an essential part of human survival. Fires have protected people from predators, cooked their food, and kept them warm for practically as long as there’ve been humans. So it makes sense that people are drawn to fireplaces and, in the outdoors, to campfires. When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing like a comfortable chair near the fireplace, with the fire lit, your beverage of choice poured, and a novel in your hand. Or a group of friends sitting near the fireplace, laughing and telling stories. Out in the open, a campfire means fresh-roasted food and coffee, warmth, and the kind of psychological intimacy that sharing that warmth brings.

It’s such an important part of life for so many people that it’s not surprising we see fireplaces and campfires so often in crime fiction. All sorts of conversations happen there, and sometimes, fireplaces provide clues, too.

Agatha Christie used fireplaces in several of her mysteries. I won’t mention particular titles or circumstances, as that would be giving away spoilers. But there are several Christie stories in which important information and clues are hidden on mantelpieces, squirreled away in and near hearths, and so on. There are a few, too (Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence come to my mind), where pokers, edges of hearths and the like turn out to be deadly.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, who is found dead in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, is the most likely suspect. He was on the scene at the time of the killing, but was so drunk that he remembers little about that night. He claims that he loved his wife and did not kill her; but there is circumstantial evidence against him. So he is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Since he remembers so little about the night of the murder, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a regular jail, with the hope being he’ll start to recover his memory. Van Veeteren isn’t convinced that Mitter is guilty. And when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, it seems clear that he was innocent. So Van Veeteren and his team look into the matter more deeply. One ‘person of interest’ is Andreas Berger, Eva Ringmar’s first husband. Berger has since married again and has a family, and he invites Van Veeteren to dinner at his home. Afterwards, they have a drink in front of a warm, inviting fire. Against this backdrop, Van Veeteren feels guilty about asking the difficult questions he has to ask (Berger is, after all, a suspect). The contrast between the friendly, homey scene and the ugly reality of interrogation make the process difficult for him. But he asks his questions, and Berger gives him some interesting background information.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith investigates the deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and Ewan Williams. These two young men were part of a group of six young people who were taking a skiing holiday in Trafalgar. One snowy night, the group’s rental SUV skids on an icy patch of road and goes into the Upper Kootenay River. Forensics tests show that Jason, who was driving, died as a result of the accident and exposure in the river. But Ewan had already been dead for several hours before the accident. So Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, trace his last days and hours to find out what happened to him. One possibility – and the evidence suggests this might be the case – is that Ewan was killed at the B&B where the group was staying. There’s a chance he was hit with a fireplace poker, and the evidence includes traces of what could be fireplace ash. And, since Smith has been to the B&B, she knows it has a fireplace. Armed with this knowledge, Smith urges her boss to go to the B&B with a search team. Winters agrees, based on what Smith has told him. The only problem is, the fireplace at the B&B is gas-powered. Needless to say, the team leave with proverbial egg on their faces, and Smith has a lot of explaining to do.

There’s a very tense scene in front of a fireplace in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. One of the island’s residents, Angel Macritchie, has been murdered in a way that’s very similar to a murder that MacLeod is already investigating. It’s hoped that his working with the Lewis police will help to solve both cases. MacLeod grew up on Lewis, so he knows most of the people who live there, including a former friend Artair Macinnes. One night, he has dinner with Artair and his wife Marsaili. The situation is awkward, since Marsaili is MacLeod’s old love. Nonetheless, everyone behaves more or less politely. Then, Marsaili leaves to make up the spare room so that MacLeod can spend the night. The two men sit by the fire with a drink. At first it’s peaceful enough. But then, Artair, who’s had more than his share, stuns MacLeod with an attack of vitriol. At the end, he says something that shocks his guest and changes everything. The conversation is a real contrast to what’s supposed to be a friendly, warm setting.

Of course, not all ‘hearth’ scenes have to be indoors. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates the murder of geologist and former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. The official police theory is that he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest isn’t sure that’s what really happened. Her questions and insistence on investigating get her into serious trouble with her boss, Bruce Cockburn. More than that, they put her in serious danger. In fact, she is brutally attacked. Not very long afterwards, she travels with her lover, JoJo Kelly, to his bush shack. She’s still suffering from what happened to her, but feels much better when she and JoJo arrive at the shack. There, she sees that her best friend, Hazel Flinders, has come to visit and lit a bluebush campfire. The company of people close to her and the warmth of the fire do much to help Emily start the healing process. It’s a very human, intimate scene that shows, among other things, the way a fire can draw people close.

There are a lot of other ‘hearth’ scenes in mysteries (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conant Doyle’s novels, Arthur Upfield’s novels, and Louise Penny’s novels). That context can provide a very effective background for the exchange of confidences, contrast with tension, and clues, too. Which have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Håkan Nesser, Louise Penny, Peter May, Vicki Delany

I’ll Be Your Warrior of Care*

Village BobbiesOne of the more enduring (and to some, endearing) figures in crime fiction is the local (usually small-town) copper – the village bobby if you want to think of it that way. This character is depicted differently, depending on the point of view of a novel. There are even novels in which the small-town copper turns out to be the killer, or at least a ‘bad guy’ (no spoilers). But whether they’re depicted sympathetically or not, bobbies and their counterparts in other cultures are woven throughout the genre, and not just in classic/Golden Age crime fiction.

It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, they are police officers; they investigate crimes. For another, there’s a certain relationship that develops between local coppers and residents. In places where everyone knows everyone, the bobby often has a feel for the people who live in a town. That knowledge can be crucial for getting information and solving cases.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth uses this sort of knowledge quite a bit when he solves cases. He’s the village bobby for Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He knows the locals very well; he’s one of them. Because he’s an integral part of that community, he finds it easier to get people to talk to him than he would if, say, he were an ‘outsider’ up from Inverness to investigate. So on the one hand, it serves him very well to be on the low rung of the police ladder. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, he’s good at solving cases, too. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a high-status position. Nor is it particularly lucrative. So there are those who don’t have the kind of respect for him that they might if he were a Superintendent. Still, being the village bobby suits Macbeth; he really has no ambition to move up.

Constable Evan Evans, Rhys Bowen’s creation, chose to be the village bobby for the small Welsh town of Llanfair, in the Snowdonia Mountains. He’s from the area, but moved to Swansea as a boy. At first, he hoped that life in Llanfair would be peaceful, but it’s hardly turned out that way. As the local bobby, he gets involved in all sorts of investigations, from trampled flower beds to brutal murders. Still, he is committed to the people he serves, and he is considered ‘one of us.’ He has a perspective that his superiors don’t, and that often gives him insights that help him solve cases.

When readers picture village bobbies, they often think of the traditional UK bobby. And there are lots of them in crime fiction. I know you’ll be able to think of many examples. But this sort of character has counterparts in other places in the world. And it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved outside the UK and Ireland.

For instance, there’s Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. His jurisdiction is Absaroka County, Wyoming, and his base of operations is the town of Durant. Like the more traditional bobby, Longmire is an integral part of the local community. Just about everyone knows him; he knows just about everyone. He cares about the people who live in the area, and for the most part, they know that and respect him for it. So there is a similar sense of ‘small-town copper’ that you see in ‘English village’ murder mysteries. But there are some interesting differences. One is that, as sheriff, Longmire is elected, not appointed. This does affect the dynamic between him and the people he serves. Longmire’s no toady. Still, he knows that if he doesn’t do his job well, or if he loses the respect of the locals for another reason, he won’t be re-elected. It makes for a subtle, but real difference in his interactions with people. Another is that he’s got a very large area to patrol. And that has a real impact on the way he and his team go about investigating. It’s not often a matter of a quick trip to a shop to ask about who’s been there.

There’s also Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Maggie’ Smith. Born and raised in Trafalgar, British Columbia, she now serves the town as constable. Smith works with a slightly larger team than you sometimes find in series featuring local coppers. But there’s still that almost-intimate relationship between her and the members of the community. In some ways, that’s helpful to her. She knows a lot of the local history, and she can find out things that aren’t as easy to learn if you’re not from the area. On the other hand, since she grew up there, a lot of people remember her from her early years. And sometimes that’s awkward for her, as she now has a position in law enforcement. Still, her local ties are very helpful to her boss, Sergeant John Winters. That connection is part of what she brings to the team.

And I don’t think a post about local bobbies and their counterparts would be complete without a mention of Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is a former soldier who now serves the small French town of St. Denis. He’s tightly woven into the community, and most people trust him in ways that they don’t trust the police nationale or even the local gendarmerie. He knows a lot about the area, too, and the histories of most of its people. He coaches youth sport, and has gotten to know most of the families. Like the British bobby, Bruno has a relatively small jurisdiction. He travels from time to time, but his cases are generally quite local. And, like the bobby you probably think of when you hear the term, he’d prefer to settle matters informally and peacefully. He’s a practical, pragmatic person, and he’s found that to be a lot more useful than obeying only the letter of the law.

There are many, many other examples of the local copper. Whether they’re traditional village bobbies or not, these characters fill an important role in law enforcement. And in crime fiction. Which ones do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alanis Morissette’s Guardian.


Filed under Craig Johnson, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany

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