There’s one kind of historical crime novel that gets no respect.
Historical crime stories have been popular for a long time. They’re even given special awards at some conventions. Lots of people love Ellis Peters’s novels about, Brother Cadfael, a 12th-century monk, while others prefer Lynda S. Robinson’s tales of ancient Egypt or Lindsey Davis’ books set in first-century Rome.
Many speak with affection of Robert H. Van Gulik’s stories about Judge Dee in seventh-century China and Laura Joh Rowland's that feature samurai-detective Sano Ichiro in 18th-century Japan.
In fact, it doesn’t take much searching to turn up long lists of historical mysteries, but to make it even easier for you, here’s a link that will take you to groups of such things as “The Detective and the Toga” (mysteries set in ancient Rome), “Murder by Gaslight” (Victorian mysteries), “Civil War Mysteries,” and lots of others. And if that’s not enough, you could visit the Crime Thru Time website, where you’ll find lists, reviews, discussions, release dates, and plenty of other information.
But you might be wondering what my point is. It’s this: Many mystery readers disdain a particular period and setting and wouldn’t even consider picking one of these novels up. In this case, it turns out that the time period does matter, because the ones nobody wants to read are set in the American west, usually in the 19th century. Sometimes they’re called “westerns.”
Lots of fine crime writers have written westerns. Elmore Leonard is the first one who comes to mind. But how many fans of his crime fiction have bothered to pick up his westerns? He wrote a number of them, both novels and stories before he turned to crime, and while some of these have been reprinted recently, I haven’t seen them on the bestseller lists.
And speaking of Leonard, I’ve talked to quite a few people who love the TV series Justified. (See more discussion here.) It’s based on an Elmore Leonard character who appears in two novels and a novella, “Fire in the Hole,” and it’s set in the Kentucky coal-mining country around Harlan County in the present time. It’s also a western in everything but setting and name. In fact, if you wanted to transport it to 1880, Raylan Givens wouldn’t even have to change his hat. Givens is a Deputy U. S. Marshal, a little trigger-happy, and the show’s featured at least one old-west shootout. Probably more, but who’s counting?
This season’s episodes feature a small town under the control of a saloon-owner, er, weed-grower, with sons who’d have been played in the ‘50s by Roy Barcroft, Myron Healey, and Grant Withers. Allan Rocky Lane would have been good as Raylan, with Marie Windsor as his ex. And so on. You get the idea. But if it were set in the Old West, the series would never have sold.
Loren D. Estleman is another multi-genre writer.He’s won awards for both his westerns and his crime novels, and he writes so well in both fields that anyone who likes hard-boiled fiction and passes his books set in the American west because “they’re westerns” is making a big mistake. The standalones are generally excellent, and series fans should certainly go for Page Murdock, who happens to be a Deputy U. S. Marshal. A recent title, The Book of Murdock, with Murdock posing as a minister while he goes after a gang of armed robbers in Texas a fine example of twisty plotting and entertaining storytelling.
Somehow I can’t resist mentioning my own westerns here, particularly one called A Time for Hanging, which is a fair-play mystery that just happens to be set in Texas around 1880. It got some nice reviews, but not in any publications devoted to mystery and crime novels. It’s likely that hardly anybody who follows my contemporary mysteries even knew about it when it was published.
One more thing: I have to give credit here to Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, who’s publishing Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s series set in San Francisco of the 1890s about former Secret Service agent John Quincannon and former Pinkerton agent Sabina Carpenter, proving that there are places that recognize the value of detective stories with western setting. Below is a a podcast of Muller and Pronzini reading their latest story, “The Chatelaine Bag,” from EQMM's June, 2011 issue.
But who knows? Maybe I’m all wrong. Maybe there are readers of this blog who indulge in western crime stories all the time. I hope you’ll let us know in the comments what titles people are missing and who we should be looking for.
Image courtesy of Existential Ennui.
Bill Crider is a Texas writer, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, fan of the Kingston Trio, and a collector of baseball cards.