Long before Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, or Zane Grey thought about swinging up into a saddle, women were blazing a trail for the Western story. Even prior to 1902 with Owen Wister’s The Virginian which is widely respected as the novel that put the genre on the map, female authors were far ahead on the drive. Some may consider James Fenimore Cooper’s romanticized “Leatherstocking Tales” series as a forerunner of the Western, but the genre as we know it can be traced back to 1860 with Ann S. Stephens’ Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, and as Western historian Ron Scheernotes in How the West Was Written Vol. I 1880-1906, women like Mary Hallock Foote (The Led-Horse Claim, 1883) and Helen Hunt Jackson (Ramona, 1884) had nearly a twenty-year jump on the celebrated Wister.
Though the men may have muscled their way through the batwing doors in ever greater numbers, seizing the spotlight, the ladies were there at the start and have been maintaining the high standard for over 155 years. Here are three modern wordslingers—Washburn, Mims, and Foley—who are still leading the charge.
Hallam by L.J. Washburn
In this novel from 1984, Lucas Hallam, a former gunfighter of the 1890s—and after the turn of the century also a Federal marshal, Pinkerton agent, and sheriff—turns to detecting, opening his own one-man agency. To make ends meet during the leaner times, he’s an extra in Hollywood films, which makes for some amusing passages. The story opens on the set of a silent flick, where Hallam plays the movie’s bad guy. He has to let the hero get the drop on him, but the lead actor is excruciatingly slow, and Hallam has to hold back in order to be outdrawn.
He’s not just a badass on the silver screen, though. When an L.A. gangster sends his hood over to escort Hallam to a meeting for a possible job, the anachronistic cowboy pulls a Bowie knife on the overbearing goon. Still, he accepts the missing person case from the goon’s boss, Anthony Rose, who has an offshore gambling boat and runs illegal booze. When Rose asks Hallam if he knows him by reputation, Hallam responds, “You’re one of the biggest crooks on the West Coast.” That in your face honesty endears him to Rose … and to Western readers.
One of Rose’s squeezes, Carmen Delgado, is missing, and Rose wants her found before it becomes public knowledge. An unusual twist in the plot: Carmen’s mother believes Rose is involved with her daughter’s disappearance, and because the woman fancies herself a witch, she tells Hallam she’s put a curse on the gangster, which goes from whimsical to ominous:
Anthony Rose was on his back, sprawled on the floor in the unmistakable attitude of death. One hand was flung out to the side; the other was clasped loosely around the hilt of the knife that was buried in his chest, as if he had tried to pull it out before it killed him.
A flawless detail to time and place reverberates throughout Washburn’s body of work, and her action scenes excite—like Hallam’s escape onto a boat while under a hail of fire. Livia J. Washburn has penned many other superb Westerns besides the Hallam series, including Wind River: Ransom Valley with James Reasoner, in addition to writing mysteries.
Double Crossing by Meg Mims
Lily Granville, a young lady of wealth, lives in Illinois with her father until he is murdered and the deed to their Early Bird mine in California is stolen. His death is made to look like suicide, which adds to her burden as a devout Christian. Determined to solve the murder of her father and reclaim the rights to the family mine, she sets off for Sacramento, California, unchaperoned with a young, dull suitor named Charles Mason (who Lily is quite sure she won't marry, though he’s relentless in his pursuit). Her journey is interrupted midway by the arrival of her insufferable aunt and uncle, scheming to have Lily committed to Bellevue, become her legal guardians, and assume the Granville wealth. Danger ensues when her hotel room is flipped and her gun is stolen. Help arrives from an unexpected direction:
The moment I glanced up, the window exploded. Shards of glass rained on us and a man rolled over the table. Scattering plates, flatware, cups and teapot, before he crashed onto the floor—unconscious, and half-draped in the tablecloth among the broken china and glass.
That ruffian who practically lands at her feet is none other than Ace Diamond, delivering a Michael Douglas/Romancing the Stone vibe with the same coarse edge that makes a pleasing counter to Lily’s prim and proper demeanor. But she knows, despite her progressive fortitude, she could use a rough-and-tumble guide like Ace to take her to Sacramento.
Mims paints a fertile landscape brimming with colorful personalities. Grounding this storyline is Lily, whose strong beliefs are steadfast despite insurmountable odds. I’m reminded of Deadwood’s Alma Garrett, a lady of stature determined to hold onto her husband’s claim. But, whereas Alma slowly becomes corrupted by the new frontier, Lily Granville’s faith never falters, which is a refreshing approach and almost a novel idea these days.
Left-Hand Kelly by Elisabeth Grace Foley
Left-Hand Kelly’s main protagonist, Colvin, is the very definition of a man living by the golden rule. He’s in the town of Clemson, Oklahoma, when by chance, he alone observes a gun duel at close range between Lew Kelly and Bob Reeves. Reeves gets the drop, dashing his opponent to the ground, and then skedaddles, not realizing there was a witness to the event. Colvin recognizes the wounded as a member of the Kelly family that lives nearby, headed by an infamous patriarch known to have been a gunslinger in his younger days. The tight-lipped clan is barely appreciative when Colvin brings Lew home, though they offer him the courtesy of borrowing a horse to ride into town, where he bumps into Reeves who is drinking at the local saloon like there’s no tomorrow. Reeves is planning to get the heck ‘out of Dodge’ before the Kellys find him. It doesn’t seem to comfort him one little bit that Colvin would testify in his defense over the proceedings. The Kelly reputation is one of shooting first and not even caring about asking questions later. Reeves wisely departs.
Years later, Colvin encounters Claire Lester, the woman who originally provoked such strong emotions between Reeves and Kelly. Colvin suspects there’s much more to the story. When his train’s whistle announces its impending departure, he opts to stay in Clemson and heads to the Kelly farm with the intention of meddling a little deeper into the fabric of this community.
Foley has set the story, like Washburn’s Hallam, around the turn of the twentieth-century, which has always been an interesting focal point in Western lore. By then, legend Bat Masterson was more newspaperman than lawman, and famed Wyatt Earp was just around the corner from offering advice to the moving pictures in sunny California. Lew Kelly’s dreams of gun-slinging fame were already outmoded. His century has passed him by. His bum firing arm only adds to his pathetic stature, opening him up to bullying and endless challenges.
These three books only skim the surface. To dip into the deep well of Westerns written by women authors today, also seek out works by: Madeline Baker, Sara Barnard, J.E.S. Hays, Linell Jeppsen, Kristen Lynch, Marthayn Pelegrimas, Kristy McCaffrey, Jill McDonald-Constable, Vonn McKee, Cheryl Pierson, Kit Prate, Kathleen Rice Adams, Jacquie Rogers, Icy Sedgwick, Vicky J. Rose, Carol Buchanan, Patricia Grady Fox, Kaye Spencer, Janet Squires, Lori Van Pelt, and Rebecca J. Vickery.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.