Great Western Reads Part 1

Everyone’s heard of Louis L’Amour. It seems like most “best western” conversations begin and end with him, although you might hear a mention of Max Brand or Riders of the Purple Sage. But there are scads of additional western writers, and there’s lots of great stuff out there hidden amongst the dreck. The trick is finding a guide to it.

A good place to start might be the new book by Scott Harris and Paul Bishop, 52 Weeks 52 Western Novels: Old Favorites and New Discoveries. In it, Harris and Bishop and a handful of other contributors discuss overlooked westerns of excellence. They don’t waste your time by giving a two-page spread to stuff you know about, like Lonesome Dove. They do dig deep into the L’Amour catalog to point out a couple of strong ones, but mostly they present things you probably aren’t aware of. It’s the kind of list Chris Hocking and I have been looking for.


9 Comments on “Great Western Reads Part 1

  1. I would love to get your thoughts comparing Western novels to S&S writing. I find many similarities in character building, pace and even plot.

  2. That’s why it was an easy transition for me, once I finally tried it.

    The problem is that it’s not ALL westerns. It’s westerns in a kind of hardboiled tradition. A lot of what I like in sword-and-sorcery is the grit from the hardboiled school, which does NOT mean elves in fedoras and trench coats.

    Many of the most popular westerns don’t have that same field, and some of those I quite like. On the whole, though, the ones I have loved have the lean prose and the characters revealed through action, swift plots, etc. I’ve already started work on a post talking about some of them.

    I can’t remember if you’ve tried Harold Lamb yet. His work was like a lightning bolt when I read it. The only thing I had to compare it with when I first found it was the Lankhmar stories. So many of the same elements, minus the existence of actual magic and monsters from beyond time.

  3. About Harold Lamb, one of the early Khlit stories had the Cossack rescuing a woman from the Tartars. It would not have taken much to rewrite the story with a frontiersmen/Texas Ranger for Khlit and Indians for Tartars. There’s even a stampede of cattle!

    You may want to check out Elmer Kelton’s stuff. He deals with a lot of Texas history. Not quite the same feel as s&s but very good. His stuff occasionally expands beyond the technical wild west to include books about the Texas War of Independence to a The Time it Never Rain about a rancher dealing with a drought in the 1950s. (It’s a good book, but it’s long and can be slow going.)

    • Matthew, thanks for the Kelton recommendation. I’ve heard from sword-and-sorcery scholar Morgan Holmes that he’s the real deal, and I picked up a couple of used paperbacks by him that I’ll get to sooner or later.

      • One of my favorites by Kelton is Manhunters. It was inspired by a true story about a Hispanic worker who is accused of murder and goes on the run. He proved so skilled at eluding the Texas Rangers that the Rangers began to respect him. After he was captured many of the same Rangers investigated the circumstances and found evidence exonerating him.

        I also liked Alan Le May’s The Searchers the basis for the John Wayne movie of the same name. It’s very good, but a bit different than the movie. I’ve been reading one of Le May’s short story collections aside from the first story (The Wolf Hunter) it’s very by the numbers Western pulp unfortunately.

  4. I need to discover Lamb. Sounds like my cup of tea. I remember reading a book long ago at my Grandmother’s about a Russian Cossack. No idea who the author was. I wonder…..

    • Small world!

      That is of course his non-fiction, which is all that used to be findable. Read the fiction starting with the stories in Wolf of the Steppes. It doesn’t take him too long to get really, really good. He learned fast. By the third story he’s writing stuff good enough to stand alongside the best sword and sorcery classics.

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