“The private-eye novel was a western that happened somewhere else.”–William Reuhlmann, Saint with a Gun
“The modern detective story and the modern Western have a great deal in common. . . .In essence both kinds of stories are American products, like corn on the cob and blueberry pie.” – Erle Stanley Gardner, “Introduction” to Davis Dresser’s The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley.
John Wayne never said “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” What he said in Stagecoach was, “There’s some things a man just can’t run away from.” And what he said in Hondo was, “A man ought to do what he thinks is best.”
Wayne would have understood the sentiment, however, and so would just about every other masculine hero from the time of Achilles right up to Spenser and beyond. Let’s not go all the way back to Achilles, however. Since I’m going to talk about the similarity of the western hero to the private-eye, let’s just go back to the original American hero, Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series.
Here’s another thing. How many married western heroes or private-eyes can you think of? Oh, sure, there are a few, but most of them are loners. Natty Bumppo knew that those who travel fastest go alone. In The Deerslayer, when he’s offered the choice between marriage and torture and death, he doesn’t hesitate to choose the latter option. And when a beautiful woman practically begs him to marry her (because all these guys are irresistible to women), he turns her down. If Marshal Matt Dillon married Miss Kitty, the next thing you know, he’d be changing diapers. Archie Goodwin kept Lily Rowan on the string for 50 years or so. Marriage just isn’t in the cards.
So what about the law? The hero doesn’t let the law determine his behavior, whether it’s in the old west or the new west. In refusing to go on a scalping expedition, even though scalping is perfectly legal and in fact rewarded by the colony, Natty Bumppo said that the law itself is unlawful, “and ought not to be followed.” A lot of western heroes are lawmen, but think about those who work a bit outside the law. I’ve already mentioned Zorro. A lot of private-eyes do follow the law, but like Mike Hammer, they don’t mind fiddling with it or using it in ways the police don’t consider appropriate.
We all know the western hero is a square shooter, or, as Natty puts it, “I would dare to speak the truth consarin’ you or any other man who ever lived.” The private-eye might lie to a criminal and prevaricate to the cops, but it’s the truth he’s always after. Or maybe the Truth, and he’s going to find it and speak it by the end of the novel, no matter what. The truth and the finding of it are what the books are all about.
Of course there are a lot more similarities between the private-eye novel and the western, and between all crime novels and westerns, for that matter. After all, aren’t western novels really crime novels? The crimes might be different, but they’re crimes all the same. And of course some crime writers are also well known for their westerns. The names Ed Gorman and Loren D. Estleman come immediately to mind.
I look forward to your comments. There’s a lot more to be said about the relationship of the western to the crime novel, and I hope to continue the discussion.
Bill Crider is a Texas writer, author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, fan of the Kingston Trio, and a collector of baseball cards.