Well, partner, I enjoy a good Western flick as much as the next fellow, but I have never been a compulsive reader of Western novels. Some folks like to figure out who-done-its, others blast off on sci-fi, and there are those in love with romance novels. To each his own, I say. I got to pondering about how many Western novels I have read and came up with a very short list: Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel, “Little Big Man;” Charles Portis’s “True Grit” (1968); and Larry McMurtry’s “Dead Man’s Walk” (1995), a volume of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” series, which is one of my personal top 10 books ever. Oh, yeah, and there also was Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-gritty “No Country for Old Men” (2005) and Tony Hillerman’s “The Shape Shifter” (2006), one of his Navajo Tribal Police detective novels.
All of these are excellent reads — and have been made into very entertaining movies, which led me to read the books on which the movies were based. But when someone says, “Western novel author,” the first two names to spring into the saddle are Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour.
Pearl Zane Grey (1872-1939), called “The Father of the Western Novel,” was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He authored 58 Western novels, plus some 30 other books and a number of short stories. Hollywood has so far cranked out over 130 films based on his works. One might call him a successful writer.
Grey’s best-seller was “Riders of the Purple Sage,” published in 1912. The book has been called by some critics “the most popular Western novel of all time.” It has been made into at least five motion pictures, the first in 1918 and the most recent in 1996, starring Ed Harris and his actual wife, Amy Madigan. Riders also had a 1915 sequel, “The Rainbow Trail.”
Grey has left several good quotes about writing: “I can write best in the silence and solitude of the night, when everyone has retired,” and “I wrote for nearly six hours. When I stopped, the dark mood, as if by magic, had folded its cloak and gone away.”
Born in North Dakota, Louis Dearborn L’Amour (1908-88) dropped out of school in the 10th grade and began an earnest process of self-education. He read, apparently, any book that fell into his hands. His 1989 memoir, “Education of a Wandering Man,” was published a year after his death at age 80. One of his quotes sounds familiar: “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for.”
L’Amour’s first novel under his own name was “Westward the Tide,” published by World’s Work in 1951. L’Amour went on to pen more than 100 novels, as well as more than 250 short stories. Besides the Western sagas for which he is best known, L’Amour also wrote a few volumes of nonfiction, some science fiction and even a bit of poetry. By 2010, more than 320 million copies of his work had been sold in more than 10 languages.
One of Mr. L’Amour’s most well-known works may be his 1982 novel, “The Shadow Riders,” which became a popular 1982 made-for-TV film starring veteran actors Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott.
I recently expanded the list of Western novelists I have read. The addition is Craig Johnson, born in West Virginia in 1961, and author of the Walt Longmire series of “modern” Westerns. Sheriff Longmire can, and sometimes does, ride a horse, but usually drives his pickup truck, the “Silver Bullet” around the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. As of this writing, I have read five of his Walt Longmire mysteries and have developed a powerful hankerin’ to read the rest of the 15-novel series.
His first book in the series was 2004’s “The Cold Dish,” the title coming from the quotation, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Longmire’s best friend and partner on many of his adventures is a character named Henry Standing Bear, a Cheyenne — shades of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Johnson’s characters are memorable and well drawn. The way he incorporates the mountains of Wyoming into his stories almost makes the rugged terrain into another character. Beginning in 2012, Netflix, the American media-services provider and production company, introduced a series, “Longmire,” starring Australian actor Robert Taylor in the title role with Lou Diamond Phillips as Henry Standing Bear. It ran for six seasons —2012 through 2017, making for a total of 63 episodes. These are now available on DVD.
It is good to have found another great American storyteller to read while savoring a hot cup of coffee in my recliner, watching a cold, drizzly rain just beyond the insulated window glass.