Western Fiction



CHARLES WILLEFORD – The Difference. Dennis McMillan, hardcover, 1999. Previously published as The Hombre from Sonora as by Will Charles (Lenox Hill Press. hardcover, 1971).

   Starts off as a typical western. Set up maybe a bit like Shane.

   Johnny Shaw is 19. Living in Phoenix. He gets a letter saying his father is dead, deep in Arizona Territory, 1880. The elder Shaw left his son no money, only a ranch. But a nice one, with six head of breeding cattle.

   Soon as he arrives, the local open range ranchers want him gone. This is their land. Has been forever. Legal land claims be damned.

   But hey, for your trouble, we’ll pay you well. Say twice its value in gold. You’ve got til tonight.

   I don’t need til tonight, says Johnny. I’ll tell you now. I don’t want your money. My dad left me this ranch and this ranch only. It’s all I’ve got. Now get out.

   My father’s land, my father’s honor. My inheritance, my honor. I’m here to stay.

   So now Johnny’s at war with the ranchers. And the shooting starts.

   But this is Willeford, so you know there’s gonna a twist on western tropes.

   Once Johnny starts a-killing, he starts to like it. Once he defends his honor and wins back his right to till his land, to get the girl, to start a homestead, to be his father’s son, he doesn’t want it anymore.

   Like Courtney Love says, ‘Once I get what I want, I never want it again.’ Well Johnny’ll lay double on that.

   He’d rather be a gunman. And be free.


   If you like Willeford, you’ll love this one as much as anything in the Willeford canon. It fits right in. Another psycho in Willeford’s psycho pantheon. If you aren’t into Willeford and just like westerns — dunno how you’ll feel. I’m not that into westerns except as an alternate setting for hardboiled crime. It seems to me that noir is hardboiled in the city and gunslinger westerns are hardboiled in the country. As writers like Willeford and Whittington and Elmore Leonard and Clifton Adams show, a writer adept at one may be equally adept at the other.

   Another point of interest to me, the protagonist only fully realizes his potential once he dies inside. I book I read awhile ago, of marginal interest here, is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about cultural clashes between the Hmong and American medicine. It’s about how American doctors have a hard time dealing with the superstitions of other cultures and view them as impediments to scientific treatment methods. On the other hand, Hmong feel that to abandon their faith causes ‘soul death’.

   In any case, ‘soul death’ is exactly what allows Pretty Boy Floyd to become a successful, cool-handed bank robber and it’s exactly what allows Johnny Shaw to turn from a scared little boy to a stone cold killer. If you get treated like crap for long enough, you dissociate. You experience time-compression. You are outside your body and can watch things happen more slowly. Veteran NFL quarterbacks talk about time slowing down, watching the action unfold like Neo in The Matrix. In half-time, in quarter-time. While for everyone else everything is moving much too fast. Everyone else is scared.

   But for the dead man, the man who is dead inside already, like Johnny Shaw: “I knew that I would be faster [on the draw]…and deep down inside me I knew why, too. [They] wanted to live. They had everything to live for: a huge ranch, and two pretty girls anxious to marry them. Nobody had ever wanted to keep on living any more than those two men did at that moment. But I wanted to die, and knowing that I wanted to die meant that I would not be killed by either one of them. That was the difference between us”. That’s the Difference.



GEORGE C. APPELL – Posse. Macmillan, hardcover. 1961. Avon T-549, paperback, date?

   A superior Western novel by an under-appreciated author.

   Three owlhoots hurrah the flyspeck town of Broadman’s Bend Arizona, killing a dog, mauling a local belle, and pistol-conking the Chinese Laundryman. The townsfolk set about assessing the damage and debating what to do and whether to pursue them, then things take a more serious turn when they discover the bank has been robbed.

   Which puts the townsfolk in a bit of a quandary. Most of the able-bodied citizens in the area are away on round-ups and cattle drives, which leaves only the softer sort of townsfolk to go in pursuit of the desperadoes. And Appell throws in another wrinkle with a flashback disclosing that Bank Clerk Arthur Milam planned the robbery and enlisted three dangerous hard-cases to carry it out. Now he thinks they’re going to share the loot with him.

   All unawares, a posse slowly forms: a hard-scrabble miner, an aspiring artist anxious to prove his manhood; a well-to-do idler, pressured to join by his father, the leading citizen of Broadman’s Bend; the sheriff, a once-able lawman dissipated by drink; and the Chinese Laundryman named William The Kid.

   The five of them are hardly a match for three hardened outlaws, or so it would seem, but Appell develops his story skillfully, bringing out the strengths in his characters but not forgetting the weaknesses, with thoughtful, fast-reading prose that adds depth and dimension to a tale of sudden violence and stubborn persistence.

   This was my first experience of reading George C. Appell, but it won’t be the last!



JOHN CUNNINGHAM – The Rainbow Runner. Tor, hardcover, 1992; paperback, 1993.

   The partners always kept locked the half-glassed doors of their office. Neither of them had ever been shot at, Jacko thought as he felt in his pocket for his key, but it was always a possibility.

   West Pointer and former Rough Rider Jacko O’Donohue of O’Donohue and Horton Export/Import has good reason to worry about being shot at. He and his partner Mike Horton are more private detectives than importers, and Jacko’s life is complex by any standards.

   His family owes money they can’t raise or they will lose their California vineyards, his wife married him expecting riches and comfort that Jacko couldn’t give her, his old “friend” and partner Mike Horton is blackmailing clients according to the D. A. (“Where’d they get the idea of blackmail? They don’t like me, never did.”), and Mike and Jacko’s wife May are having an affair.

   So when the Mexican Consul in Los Angeles, Manuel Palafox, a frequent client of O’Donohue and Horton for whom they spy on local anarchists, offers Jacko a considerable fee to escort a religious artifact that was smuggled out of Mexico by would-be anarchists, a monstrance worth a quarter of a million dollars stolen from the church in San Luis Potosi, back to its rightful place it seems like a solution to all his problems.

   But that may not be as simple as it seems, not with Palafox’s dangerous half-brother Herculano, the revolutionaries in L.A. who stole the relic in the first place and moved it out of Mexico, the forces of the Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico, and the treacherous Mike and May simply surviving may be all Jacko can manage.

   Jacko went over his Tactical Rules. Number 1: the most effective offense as well as the most difficult is to take the enemy by surprise from the rear. Number 2: in the rear from an elevated position. Number 3: in the rear by enfilade. All these West Point abstractions were subsumed under the general heading of Backshooting.

   While this may sound like a private eye novel (there was never all that much difference between the two), and a fairly hard-boiled one at that, The Rainbow Runner, is, in fact, a Western (though one that would not have been out of place in Black Mask), and by a fairly well known Western writer, John Cunningham, a highly praised master of the form well known for his fine novel of the trail drives, Warhorse, and a little story called “The Tin Star” filmed under the more familiar name of High Noon.

   The high quality of the writing (… his small feet adventuring timidly, one after the other, like a pair of old married mice out of a hole.) the well-developed characters, and the sense that everything arises naturally from the characters and plot as set in motion mark this as a classic adventure story as Jacko gets involved reluctantly with Becky (“I can see you, scuttling along behind me, terrified because you think you might have to protect me.”), Mike’s wife and tries to survive against a background of treachery and violent terrain.

   Everyone is out for themselves and everyone has a hidden agenda. No one can be trusted, and Jacko isn’t all that sure of himself or his own motives. All he knows is his life has come apart and now delivering that religious relic may mean the end of it.

   Here he evokes the divided border town of Nogales as sharply as Berlin divided by the Wall:

   They came out onto International the broad double width of street cleared like a tornado straight east to west across the town. Down the center ran a line of telephone poles as though to mark the line. Where Grand crossed south into Mexico stood an obelisk, a little taller than the sentry posted next to it. Three others of the U. S. Infantry patrolled the line with Springfields at shoulder arms, looking professional in their wrinkled bloomers. On the other side of the telephone poles two Mexicans in bedraggled shirts and pants, one with a jacket half torn off his back, shuffled slowly back and forth, carrying captured Mausers across their shoulders as if they were shovels.

   Cunningham is often ranked with writers like Jack Shaefer and A. B. Guthrie as a Western writer, and here blurbed by Guthrie, Elmore Leonard, Alan LeMay, Douglas C. Jones, and reviewed in The New Yorker. His bona fides as a writer of Westerns are top notch.

   This and his novel Starfall came along late in his career and are both well worth finding. Four novels and a classic short story aren’t a prolific career, but when they are all this good quality weighs far more than quantity.



CLIFTON ADAMS – The Desperado / A Noose for the Desperado. Stark House Press, trade paperback, 2017. // The Desperado. Gold Medal #121, paperback original, 1950. // Noose for the Desperado. Gold Medal #683, paperback original, 1957.

   First heard about this via George Tuttle’s defunct website defining noir and suggesting some titles:

   He says there: “The Desperado by Clifton Adams … though a Western, this novel is a landmark of early Gold Medal noir. Set in Texas during Reconstruction, the story traces the subtle transformation of Talbert Cameron from battler of injustice to outlaw.”

   Never before having thought of westerns as part of the noirboiled genre, this way eyeopening and provided this bibliomaniac with a whole new reading source to plunder.

   Though westerns seem like they are 1800’s rather than 1940’s, the genre started around the same time as noirboiled crime, involved many of the same writers, and contains many of the same themes and styles as the Hammett’s and Chandler’s whose bibliographies I’d exhausted.

   The lone gunman, the town harlot, and the marshall of the western are fairly transposable to the hardboiled detective, Jim Thompson psycho, and the femme fatale. The town always corrupt.

   The Stark House edition I read has the following Donald Westlake quote on its cover:

   “A compact, understated, almost reluctant treatment of violence, first introduced me to the notion of the character adapting to his forced separation from normal society.” Sounds like the Desperado’s the Parker template.

   Onto the books themselves (in a recent read (Blue of Noon) a female character says: “Get to the point. I never listen to prefaces.”).

   Talbert (“Tall”) Cameron is around 18 years old, with a temper, in small town Texas during reconstruction. His folks have a little homestead, raise cattle and horses. It’s all real homey.

   But then Talbert punches a carpetbagging cop who insults the local ladies, and he’s due to do time on the work gang.

   He ain’t going.

   He takes off, and when the cops beat his dad to death when his dad refuses to squawk of Tall’s whereabouts, all bets are off.

   Tall comes back, exacts his revenge, and from there on out he’s a desperado.

   It’s well written. It’s hard. It’s dark. It’s boiled.

   The Desperado is quite good. Quite archetypal. Innocence lost. Young love. Honor. Revenge. Betrayal.

   And like the typical hard-boiled detective, he’s got an ethos. He doesn’t steal. He only kills in self-defense.

   And then comes the sequel: A Noose for the Desperado.

   First of all: Spoiler alert: No Noose. Not even the suggestion of a noose.

   He takes over a western version of Poisonville for no apparent reason than greed.

   Now, for some unexplained reason, the Desperado has lost his morals. Or at least traded them for ambivalence.

   He’s like Yogi Berra’s old saying that if you see a fork in the road, take it.

   He steals. And then he decides that money doesn’t matter. He uses people. And then he looks after them. And then he doesn’t.

   One of the main Aristotelian virtues is constancy. It’s a virtue all the great heroes have.

   The Desperado has it in the first novel and loses it in second.

   While he escapes the noose, we do not.



LUKE SHORT – The Whip. Bantam #1668, paperback original, 1957. Reprinted by Bantam several times. Also: Dell, paperback, 1992.  Previously published as a magazine serial; see below.

   A short note after the copyright page tells us the first two-thirds of this was serialized in Colliers until that magazine went out of business, then the remainder was picked up by The Saturday Evening Post  as a tribute to a fallen competitor. And to finish off a crackling fine yarn. (**)

   Said yarn is of Will Gannon, the kind of tough westerner best suited to books like this, who, as the story opens, commandeers a stagecoach from a drunken driver, gets it safely to town, and ends up appointed District Manager of a stretch of road rife with robbery, murder, slack discipline and bad food.

   The charm of this book is Luke Short’s ability to sketch out a tale of sudden violence against a background of the day-to-day work of running a business. He fills it in with a well-drawn cast of characters — mostly standard Western types, but well-drawn as such — and a convincing landscape for horses and men to travel and battle in.

   But as I say, what makes The Whip work is the balance Luke Short strikes between Gannon’s workaday chores and the escalating violence engineered by the ne’er-do-wells he’s replaced. Short builds carefully, effectively, to a prolonged chase and a grim conclusion that rings true.

   Definitely one for Western fans to check out!


(**) Steve and I have identified the first two parts of the three part serial:

     “Doom Cliff,” (serial) Collier’s Dec 21 1956, Jan 4 1957 [last issue]

   But the third and final installment supposedly published in The Saturday Evening Post has eluded us. Is the statement in the paperback edition incorrect? Have we missed something?

UPDATE: Mystery solved, thanks to the very kind assistance of pulp master Sai Shankar. See Comment #3.



EUGENE MANLOVE RHODES – The Proud Sheriff. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1935, with a preamble by Henry Herbert Knibbs. Dell #688, paperback. 1953 (cover by Robert Stanley). University of Oklahoma, hardcover/softcover, 1968/1977.

   If you want an introduction to the works of a major Western writer, this will do very nicely. It opens with a lengthy foreword, detailing the life and character of Eugene Manlove Rhodes, then follows with an excellent novella detailing the activities of the proud Sheriff, Spinal Maginnis.

   Maginnis is proud, a character explains, because there hasn‘t been a killing in his county in ten years. And because the Mexicans get along with the Americans, the miners get along with the ranchers, and the big rancher gets along with the smaller ones.

   He’s proud that there aren’t many rich men in his county, but no one goes to bed supperless. And he’s proud because “I been sheriff here near to eight years and made my few and simple arrests with ne’eer a shot fired.”

   Shortly after the story opens, Maginnis’ first cause for pride gets squelched by a double murder. And as the story ends, so does his final boast. In between times, Rhodes offers up a rich, fast-moving story filled with colorful characters, spiced with humor, and moved along at a steady pace by sound detective work and bursts of action.

   Mostly though, this is the story of Spinal Maginnis, the proud sheriff, and here Rhodes provides a character distinctive, well-rounded, and fascinating enough to keep the reader (this reader anyway) up way past bedtime.

LEONARD MEARES – Feud at Greco Canyon. The Braddock Detective Agency #4. Robert Hale/Black Horse Western, UK, hardcover, 1994. No other edition known.

   The Braddock Detective Agency consists of a well-matched husband-and-wife pair, Rick and Hattie Braddock. He’s a jack of all trades, having grown up moving all over the west with a travelling repertory group and carnival show. He’s a master of disguise and an actor very much adept at improvised dialogue, a card sharp and a piano player. She’s beautiful and has a past that includes stints as a chorus girl who is skilled at both make-up and characterization, a magician’s assistant, and as a knifethrower’s target. Or in other words, what better pair can you imagine to tackle outlaws, owlhoots and other miscreants of the Old West?

   Well, they do at times have to take cases the Pinkertons would probably pass up, In Feud at Greco Canyon, for example, they’re hired by the well-to-do daughter of the sheriff there who is getting up in years and is doing his best trying to stop a huge feud between the two major landowners in the area. One is a rancher, the other a farmer.

   The Braddocks go in undercover, he as a card sharp, she as a saloon singer. (See above.) The key to stopping the feud turns out to be finding the man who shot and killed one of the riders for one of the two sides, with one on the other accused of the deed and awaiting trial.

   Meares does not take the case all that seriously, however. A light tone prevails. There is a lot more talk than action, and by that I mean a lot. The one shootout at the end takes less a page or two, and what is happening during it is not clearly defined. On the other hand, a subplot consisting of a incipient love affair between a deputy sheriff and the new schoolmarm takes up a couple of full chapters in comparison, which may (or may not) tell you all you need to know before you decide to seek this one out (or maybe not).

   In its own way, though, this one is fun to read, somewhat on the level of a Durango Kid B-western from the 40s. (I mean no disrespect here. The Durango Kid was my favorite cowboy in the movies when I was a kid.) Meares was an Australian writer of mostly westerns, with a few mysteries thrown in, but close to 750 books in all. Some of his westerns were published in the US by Bantam as by Marshall McCoy. These include books in both his “Larry & Stretch” and “Nevada Jim Gage” series, both of which became collectors’ items here for a while, perhaps more for their James Bama covers.

      The Rick & Hattie Braddock series —

Colorado Runaround, 1991.
The Major and the Miners, 1992.
Five Deadly Shadows, 1993.
Feud at Greco Canyon, 1994.



MARK SABIN – Winchester Cut. Gold Medal #144, paperback, 1951. recycled as Stranger from Arizona: Dodd, Mead, hardcover, 1956, as by Norman A. Fox. Also Dell #969, paperback, 1958; and Avon, paperback, 1987.

   I’ll use any excuse to sample a Gold Medal, and the title of this one intrigued me, winking up from a neat pile of paperbacks in a used book store on the main drag of an old hippie town somewhere in Ohio. So I bought it, then a few weeks later I cracked it open and found:

   He saw the basin first from a high promontory that gave him a far glimpse of dun grassland and the deep brown of grazing cattle. In the last sunlight, autumn haze lay over the land, making all things deceptive; a river sparkled in the immensity below, and ranch smoke lifted here and there, and a town’s roofs showed. He had a speculative moment, sitting his saddle and seeing all this; but a remembrance of his mission rose and stood stark in his consciousness, and all his thinking became a far cry out of the yesterdays.

   So I knew at least this guy loved to write. The ensuing pages filled out a book that’s nothing special, really, but a solid read.

   Clint Tracy arrives in Montana emotionally scarred by a Texas range war, battle hardened and ready for the heady ranchers’ feud he finds brewing. But he has his own agenda, and it has more to do with the people involved than with land or cattle. The characters turn out to be fairly standard types: tough old rancher, willful daughter, hot-headed son, etc. but the author writes them as if he’d just thought them up, and the result is they never seem as cliché’d as they really are.

   Sabin/Fox leans on the mystery of Tracy’s mission (which ain’t all that mysterious) a bit heavily at times, but he fills the story with enough riding, fighting and shooting to keep it lively, and when the range war finally erupts, it’s intelligently done. Nobody blunders for the sake of convenience, and Sabin/Fox’s lean prose carries the action very nicely indeed.

   Winchester Cut won’t get on anyone’s Ten Best List — Hell, it’ll never even make a Top100 — but it makes for an entertaining hour or so of the kind of fast-moving reading they just don’t seem to write anymore.

COLT .45. Warner Brothers, 1950. Randolph Scott, Ruth Roman, Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges, Alan Hale, Ian MacDonald, Chief Thundercloud. Screenwriter: Thomas W. Blackburn. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   One of Alan Hale’s last films, alas, and I wish I could say it was a good one, not that either Alan Hale nor leading man Randolph Scott were at fault, nor Ruth Roman, radiantly beautiful in a Technicolor western.

   Scott plays a salesman named Steve Farrell traveling the west to sell the newly designed repeating Colt .45’s. His target buyers are lawmen who desperately need them to keep the unlawful elements of their territories at bay. Unfortunately, the fatal error on the part of one sheriff allows a pair of the guns to fall into the hands of a notorious outlaw (Zachary Scott), who then uses them on a spree of killing and robbing, while Farrell spends the next few months in jail.

   It’s quite a mixup, and not a very believable one, nor is the rest of the story, which continues with Farrell’s release from jail, vowing to track down the man who stole his guns. Zachary Scott always made a good villain, but someone let him pull out all the stops here, leering and spouting eye-bulging vitriol at anyone who dares cross his path, including members of his own gang.

   One of whom is played by Lloyd Bridges, whose acting in this film is barely above that of an amateur in high school — or it could be the dialogue he is forced to say while trying his best not to be embarrassed by it. Bridges’ wife is portrayed by Ruth Roman, who gradually begins to realize the truth about her husband.

   One twist I didn’t see coming involves Alan Hale’s character, a sheriff with ulterior motives, and I dare not say more about that. It isn’t a big part, so I’d have to say that the only two reasons for watching this otherwise mediocre western are Randolph Scott, who could play any good guy in a western and make it convincing without half trying, and lovely Ruth Roman.




CHARLES NEIDER – The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones. Harper & Brothers, 1956. Crest #368, paperback,1960. University of Nevada Press, trade paperback, 1992.

ONE-EYED JACKS. Paramount, 1961. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Timothy Carey and Sam Gilman. Written (at various times) by Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, Sam Peckinpah and Rod Serling. Directed by Marlon Brando.

   Like Day of the Outlaw, a book and film that grow widely dissimilar. But where Day’s incarnations are excellent, these are great.

   Charles Neider wrote a highly acclaimed biography of Mark Twain, and I read somewhere that he then set himself to a similar work about Billy the Kid, but gave it up after years of research and wrote the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones instead. His own introduction to a later edition tends to refute this story, but I like it anyway. In fact, Neider’s prose is very much like Twain’s. No surprise that, but it’s Twain in a nostalgic, elegiac tone, as the narrator, Doc Baker, looks back on youth and friendship now gone.

   Doc, however, is only the narrator. The subject of the book is a Billy the Kid figure, here named Hendry Jones, and Neider manages to convey second-hand the attraction and fear the character evokes in those around him: the easy charm, generosity, sexual magnetism and murderous nature of a man who lives only in the moment. Make no mistake, Hendry Jones is one of the great figures of Fiction and he’s right at home in a great novel.

   No wonder then that the character and the book would attract an actor of Marlon Brando’s caliber. And even less wonder that, having bought the novel and been given carte blanche on the film, Brando would feel compelled to re-shape it to his own psyche as One-Eyed Jacks.

   The result is nothing like the book, but there’s no arguing with the beauty of the thing. Brando directs himself with a knowing narcissism that makes for powerful cinema and plenty of just-plain-fun movie moments. He knows his own strengths, and writes and plays to them, with quietly-mumbled lines like “Don’t be doin’ her that way,” shot with all the impact of a stray bullet.

   For a self-indulgent egoist, Brando is surprisingly generous with his supporting players. At the top of the list, Karl Malden’s portrayal of venal hypocrisy is as compelling as Brando’s forthright knavery. Slim Pickens and Pina Pilar play lustful and lustee, arrogant and innocent, with real feeling, and Ben Johnson, my personal favorite, damnear steals the whole show as a bloody-eyed bank robber partnered with Brando.

   And oh yes: Timothy Carey, the sine qua non of quirky movies, got most of his scenes deleted (he was fired for causing trouble on the set and demanding that his salary be doubled), but survives long enough to try to back-shoot the Star — never a good idea in a Western.

   I read that tidbit in another book: A Million Feet of Film: The Making of One-eyed Jacks (2019) by Toby Roan. It’s full of information, with snippets from just about every biography, magazine article and gossip column on the subject, some quite juicy. I would have appreciated more insight (much of the material seems self-serving and rather suspect), but there’s no gainsaying the research and effort that went into this, and there are gems of information here, including:

   One of my favorite moments in the film is when Rio (Brando) catches up with his betrayer (Karl Malden) after five years in a Mexican jail and months of searching. The scene is set for a shoot-out… and they sit down and lie to each other in an extended scene, perfectly written and played!

   So imagine my surprise to learn that this was largely re-shot without Brando, when the Studio heads decided it made Malden’s character too sympathetic. I read the original dialogue here and looked at the scene again… and I had to agree with the Suits that this works much better! Credit goes to editor Archie Marshek and Karl Malden, for a seamless and captivating bit of Cinema.

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