April 14, 2011 by Reader's Connection
As a person who doesn’t read westerns, I tend to think of that genre as having disappeared down a cold, dark canyon. Max Brand ( d.1944), Ernest Haycox (d. 1950), and Louis L’Amour (d. 1988) are long gone, and, as the all-knowledgeable Wikipedia tells us, “Readership [of westerns] began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books.”
But the sagebrush and cacti live on. Loren D. Estleman, for example, may be best known as the author of the Detroit-based Amos Walker private eye series, and some other fiction titles which celebrate or lament that city (Edsel, Thunder City). He is, however, a five-time winner of the Spur Award for western writing. These things are being written, whether or not some of us are reading them.
Another Estleman series of note features Page Murdock, U. S. Deputy Marshall in the Montana Territory. The library owns six of the eight novels in the series. I’ve read only the most recent installment, The Book of Murdock (2010), in which the deputy’s boss, Judge Harlan Blackthorne, tells him to disguise himself as a preacher and go down to Texas after some highwaymen. The story has nice twists and a show-down, but my favorite passages involve the defrocked priest Eldred Griffin, who unwillingly gives Murdock divinity lessons in preparation for the assumption of his new identity.
I read the book a month ago, and I’m getting a kick out of re-reading the Griffin dialogue now. Like any good genre writer, Estleman is pushing the boundaries–like Murdock himself, whose Montana Territory duties somehow take him up into northern Canada (White Desert), and down to New Mexico (City of Widows). Westerns live!