The Old West: A New Frontier in Crime Fiction

Read Terrence McCauley's take on the Western genre as fertile ground for crime fiction, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of Where the Bullets Fly!

I know what you’re thinking. There’s absolutely no way in the world anyone in their right mind could consider historic Westerns to be crime fiction. Modern tales set in the West are okay—such as the consistently fine work turned in by the likes of Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, Tony Hillerman, and others—but certainly not sagebrush and spurs Westerns set in the 1800s, right?

Don’t be so sure.

I don’t necessarily blame people for their misconceptions of the historical Western. One could be forgiven for recalling the tawdry images of cheap dime novels with salacious covers of half-naked women gripped by cowboys or blood-thirsty Native Americans about to prey on settlers. Tired tropes of lone sheriffs squaring off against bad men while townspeople cower in fear come to mind, as do dated portrayals of Native Americans, Mexicans, and other ethnic minorities who were treated horribly during America’s westward expansion.

It’s easy to turn up one’s nose at anyone continuing to write “cowboys and Indians stuff,” as someone did at a recent writer’s convention when I mentioned my foray into Westerns. In many ways, the genre shot itself in the foot by flooding the market with predictable plots and cardboard characters for decades. The mystery/thriller genre has suffered from a similar lack of originality, but a modern setting combined with better marketing has effectively hidden this slippage in quality.

But a cursory look at the Western genre will show that it is far more diverse than most people give it credit. I had the pleasure of attending the Western Writers of America Conference in Billings, Montana, earlier this summer and found myself floored by the number of topics eligible for the Silver Spur Awards. Individual categories included Historical Novels, Contemporary Novels, Mass Market Paperbacks, Romance, Traditional Novels, Biographies, Contemporary Nonfiction, Historical Nonfiction, Juvenile Fiction and Nonfiction, and Short Fiction.

Cover of Cimarron by Edna Ferber
Cimarron by Edna Ferber

As impressive as the range of categories may have been, it was nothing compared to the diverse creative heritage of the organization. Edna Ferber wrote classics like the novels Giant and Cimarron. Elmore Leonard got his start writing Westerns. Richard Matheson wrote many acclaimed novels in various genres and wrote a fair amount of Westerns. Robert B. Parker also tried his hand at the genre with his acclaimed Hitch/Cole series. Cormac McCarthy, Loren Estleman, and David Morrell have written Westerns too. The influence of the genre on the Gunslinger character from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series cannot be overlooked.

Check out our entire Dark Tower reread!

Why has the historical Western been able to attract so many writers who have had success in other genres, particularly in crime writing? The answer is simple. The era of our country’s expansion is still fertile ground for those looking to tell a great story. It affords a writer the ability to explore the rawest forms of the human condition—greed and benevolence, anger and love, bravery and cowardice—all far away from the Victorian comforts back east and across the Atlantic in Europe. The historic West shows people living on a knife’s edge, facing death at every turn—be it from nature, fate, or their fellow human beings of varying origin and culture. It is a time when old worlds clashed with new; when modernity trampled everything in its path.

In short, the Old West is an era ripe for crime fiction. Whereas Sherlock Holmes had his deerstalker cap and magnifying glass in the cozy confines of Baker Street, the American lawman of the same era had to be able to read a trail as well as he could read a suspect in a murder or an attack. Good people had to stand against the bad to protect all they held dear against those who wished to do them harm. Greed and ambition led people to break the law, which forced their victims to seek justice in one form or another. The motivations of the characters of a modern crime novel are the same as those in a historic Western. The only difference is the setting.

I know some of you might still be skeptical about the depth of possible storylines set in this time period. I’ll admit, I had the same reservations when I began writing this piece. But I was fortunate to receive the latest edition of Roundup Magazine from the Western Writers of America, wherein there was an excellent article about this very topic written by Win Blevins. Titled “The Unwritten West: Broadening the Scopes of Stories,” Mr. Blevins highlights several unexplored points of view one might explore should they decide to write about the West. Among them were stories set among the Native American tribes, both before and after the United States began to encroach on their land; the French-Canadian trappers and traders, who were true pioneers ahead of their time and faced untold adventure and danger; Californios who prospered for generations under Mexican rule only to be disenfranchised by American expansion; miners who came west seeking riches only to find ruin instead; Mormons who fought religious persecution as they sought a place where they could worship their own God in their own way; and, finally, the Chinese whose contributions and tribulations in the settlement of the West cannot be diminished.

I found a quote from Elizabeth George that I believe fits the premise of this article. “If you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration.”

That is why I believe those who discount the viability or appeal of historical Westerns do so at their own peril. Don’t let the setting fool or intimidate you. There is a wealth of great crime stories that have been set in the West. I firmly believe there are even greater stories yet to be told from different points of view. The only question is our courage to tell them.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Where the Bullets Fly by Terrence McCauley!

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Comments

  1. John Quiring

    Sounds great. Count me in!

  2. John Smith

    Ah reckon this is a good book!

  3. Robert Junker

    Excellent!

  4. SUSAN GANNON

    I love westerns

  5. Jody Darden

    Always liked western movies but have not read many westerns save for a few L’amour’s passed down from my dad. I agree with the articles statement of tired tropes in the genre. This sounds like a change of pace, however. I’m interested!

  6. Susanne Troop

    Love a good western!

  7. Sally Schmidt

    That is a category I had not thought of, kind of the traditional western or the romance western with an edge. I’m ready!

  8. Carole Knoles

    The western- the iconic American Classic.

  9. Kristin Duncan

    Looks intriguing!

  10. Janice Milliken

    DANG!!

  11. becky

    I love the Western theme~!

  12. Louis Burklow

    I’ve read and seen western mysteries before and agree with Terrence here. I’d like to read his book and some of the westerns Win Blevins proposed as well.

  13. Katie Caprero

    What a great article. My favorite “old” western is the classic “the Mark Of Zorro” by Johnston McCulley. The name is close, I hope the book is as great.

  14. Ronald Roseborough

    I love Western stories. Count me in.

  15. Anne

    Westerns are captivating and wonderful.

  16. Pearl

    Excited to read a memorable Western novel.

  17. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  18. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  19. lasvegasnv

    cool

  20. Darlene Slocum

    I cut my teeth on westerns and still enjoy them.

  21. Richard Derus

    Cool! Western + crime novel = happy daddy.

  22. Lori P

    Only need to spend any time in pioneer museums to agree that there would absolutely be a nexus between historical westerns and crime fiction, as evidenced by the real thing! Sounds truly fascinating!

  23. susan beamon

    I don’t read many westerns because a very great many of them follow formulas. I would like something that isn’t fighting outlaws or fighting Indians or mail order brides.

  24. Julie Toller

    Make my husband happy

  25. Anita Sue Hamilton

    Yippee I am in

  26. DanielM

    looks interesting

  27. Jackie Wisherd

    I would enjoy reading this book. I love anything Old West.

  28. Janet Gould

    Fascinating article.

  29. Andrew Beck

    I found a trove of Zane Grey in my parent’s attic growing–they had been given to my folks by someone who knew they both liked to read. I picked over quite a few myself and indeed quite a few contained elements of mystery and definitely suspense.

  30. Margit Curtright

    Thanks!

  31. L

    Sounds like a great Western!

  32. Deb Philippon

    I haven’t read a good Western in a long while. Time to remedy that. Wish me luck!

  33. Helen Allman

    Looking forward to this.

  34. downeaster

    I rarely read westerns nowadays

  35. Saundra K. Warren

    I’ve been reading westerns here lately, this one sounds good!!

  36. Marie

    I am looking forward to a new western on the horizon. We need more of these.

  37. CarolT

    We do need more of these.

  38. Susan Morris

    Combining two of my favorite genres is a wonderful thing. Can’t wait to read this!

  39. Wayne Winkle

    I also believe the western genre can be much more than it has been. I’ve had some success writing westerns and plan to have much more.

  40. MaryC

    Can’t wait to read!

  41. Karen Terry

    I don’t normally read western books but would like to read this one.

  42. Anastasia

    Count me in 🙂

  43. Pat Murphy

    Westerns and crime combo — makes sense.

  44. Tiffany

    Looks really good

  45. Joe

    I never learned much about western US history in school so I find the setting and its story very interesting. Although I’ve never really watched/read Westerns, I loved No Country For Old Men and The Dark Tower Series so I know I enjoy its elements. I can’t wait for Where the Bullets Fly!

  46. SUSAN GANNON

    thanks for the chance

  47. shannon calvin

    usually read romance/suspense looking forward to trying a new genre

  48. ViolinGeek

    Very willing to give this here book a try. Thanks!

  49. Jane Schwarz

    Never thought of Westerns as mysteries. I will have to rethink that now. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of “Where Bullets Fly”.

  50. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    I am cowboy! Yes!

  51. Christal M

    Sounds great

  52. katevocke

    This sounds awesome! I love me a good western book!

  53. Joy Isley

    I grew up reading Louis L Amour books and have loved reading westerns ever since.
    I would love to read this book since I have yet to read this author.

  54. Jean Sagarese

    Would love to read this and I too used to read Louis L. Amour books and still do when I can find copies

  55. Billy Skibinski

    Love a great western

  56. HESTER MAYO

    Thanks for the opportunity to win!

  57. rebecca ward

    John Wayne Fan here…Love westerns!

  58. matt

    I believe western are one of the best subject to read

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