Trenchcoats & Ten-Gallon Hats- The Creative Relationship Between The Western And Crime Novel

 

Robert Knott, the author chosen to continue Robert B. Parker’s Western-detective mash-up series starring sheriffs Hitch and Cole, comes to visit to BookPeople tonight, Friday February 5th, at 7 PM. He’ll be speaking and signing his latest extension of the series, Robert B. Parker’s Blackjack. 

Why post about an upcoming visit from the author of a Western novel on a mystery blog, you might ask? Well, as Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery, a fan of all tough-guy fiction, explains below, the two genres may have more in common than you might think….

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery, all quotes taken from interviews via email

G enres have always have conversations with one another. They find reinvention in themselves or each other from borrowing from one another. Few do it as much as the crime novel and the western.

“The historian Richard Slotkin is most famous for making the argument (and I believe he’s right) that the detective hero of hardboiled fiction is a literary descent of the Western or frontier hero,” says crime fiction author and expert Megan Abbott. “The dangerous frontier becomes the dangerous city, and the “savage” Native Americans are replaced by various “others” in hardboiled novels. Further, the Western or frontier hero is often a loner, someone who can mix in “both worlds” and who resists the “civilizing” influence of women–something else you can see in the detective hero.”

An argument can be made that the cross pollination came from first pulp and later paperback markets where both forms were highly popular. The markets fueled a populist readership from both urban and rural communities, demanding both escapism and something they could relate to. Authors like Max Brand, Zane Grey, Fredrick Nebel, and Raoul Whitfield usually worked in more than one genre. This lead to experimentation.

“I think when you’re talking about genre you’re talking about a contextual relationship with the reader, a line of commonality that’s something of an insider language,” says Craig Johnson, author of the lauded Sheriff Walt Longmire series. “That means it works on different levels and allows you to use as much or as little as you like.”

“The dangerous frontier becomes the dangerous city, and the “savage” Native Americans are replaced by various “others” in hardboiled novels. Further, the Western or frontier hero is often a loner, someone who can mix in “both worlds” and who resists the “civilizing” influence of women–something else you can see in the detective hero.”

What many consider one of the first hard boiled detective novels, Red Harvest, features as many western tropes as crime fiction ones. Dashiell Hammett took his nameless Continental Op from his short stories and made him the stranger coming into a corrupt Montana mining town, playing the corrupt power players against each other. There is little of the detective procedural in Hammett’s Continental Op stories. The Op acts more like a hired gunman instead. The book served as an indirect influence on the spaghetti western classic A Fistful Of Dollars.

The crime novel became truly western in the seventies with the works of Tony Hillerman. By featuring Navajo tribal policeman Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, he used the mystery to switch up western conventions, making the American Indians the heroes. He tapped into the use of landscape, spirituality, and community inherent in the genre. In doing so, Hillerman introduced the idea of the mystery novel as a way to explore western society and subculture.

In that same decade Robert B. Parker was using the western to create a more modern version of the private eye. Even though his Spenser practices his heroics in one of the Eastern-most cities, Boston, he carries the ethos of the noble gunfighter.

“No doubt, the code. Whether real or imagined, a product of Hollywood or not, Parker gave Spenser and Hawk a code to live by,” explains Ace Atkins, who has continued writing the exploits of Spenser and his streetwise partner. “Even if Hawk and Spenser’s codes don’t match, it’s a set of rules that gives them a belief system.”

It laid a bedrock of machismo that allowed Parker to add modern (today some may say “metro sexual”) elements of Spenser’s aptitude at cooking and personal style. Parker’s novel, Early Autumn, where Spenser saves a young man from bad parenting, dives deep into all of his philosophy and practices. Ironically they feed back into the mythos of the western hero as a self-sustaining man.

Today the western-crime novel is its own sub-genre. Practitioners like Craig Johnson and C.J. Box find themselves on the New York Times bestsellers list. The regional issues they confront, including energy, conservation, gun control, and land rights have become national ones as their series continues. Craig Johnson finds it both a challenging and rewarding.

For me, I get much more freedom and a larger landscape. I think the traditional crime book is more insular but the Western tells a larger story of society, a town or county, and the way violence effects everyone.

“The West really isn’t all that different from other geographic areas, it’s just that it suffers from and epic sense of romance that sometimes obliterates the charm of the reality, which is what I think is missing in most westerns.”

When asked what tropes he like to subvert his answer was “All of them. Ever since Horace Greeley uttered the hoary phrase, go West young man, and grow with the country, people have been buying into the Western mythos, right? The truth is John Babsone Lane Soule in the 1851 Terre Haute Express first wrote the statement. Just an example of how you can either follow the legend or follow the truth. With all due respect to Dorothy Johnson, the author of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–for me, the truth is always going to be more interesting than re-printing the same, tired legends. In all honesty, I think that’s what she was saying, too.”

Ace Atkins like to revisit the Western and inject its iconic tropes into his work whether it be his continuation of the Spenser series, his Mississippi set Quin Colson series, or even his historical novels.

“For me, I get much more freedom and a larger landscape. I think the traditional crime book is more insular but the Western tells a larger story of society, a town or county, and the way violence effects everyone. The Quinn books are absolutely Westerns. I could do a “find and replace” with my laptop and trade out horses for pickup trucks and make Quinn a Civil War soldier and not much would change. It’s mostly about family dynamics.”

He even admitted to partly using the tropes as a way to write a traditional western. “It’s so hard to get a Western published these days. I think publishers are skeptical of any period book selling that well. But by writing Quinn, his code, the larger landscape, I absolutely can get in my Western fix. As it’s been said, the West isn’t a location but more of a mood.”

“I think [the two genres] are both deeply connected to America’s ideas about itself, embodied in this figure of a lone American male as adventurer, staking out unknown territory, seeking justice.”

The conversation between the two genres continues. Blackjack, Robert Knott’s latest western featuring frontier town tamers Hitch and Cole (originally created by Robert B. Parker) has a who-dunnit plot. New authors like C.B. McKenzie and Benjamin Whitmer are using the west in unique and less romantic ways.

“I think [the two genres] are both deeply connected to America’s ideas about itself, embodied in this figure of a lone American male as adventurer, staking out unknown territory, seeking justice.” Megan Abbott concludes. “There’s an intense romanticism to it (and a conservatism). Yet both genres are also very capable of rejecting the limitations of the past and updating themselves for more contemporary iterations (in other words, the hero need no longer be white, male or alone). Both genres can be eternally relevant in the hands of gifted writers.”

Come by BookPeople tonight at 7 PM to hear actor and author Robert Knott speak and sign his latest work, Robert B. Parker’s Blackjack. Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public. You must purchase a copy of Knott’s latest through BookPeople in order to join the signing line. 

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