“The Wonderful, Terrible, Mysterious West” (by Susan Salzer)

When Susan Salzer’s March/April 2012 story “The Saint of Pox Island” was named a finalist for the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award this spring, we did a search of EQMM’s 72-year-long awards list (which you can find here, on our Web site) and discovered that this was the first story from the magazine to receive a nomination for that distinguished award. As the author shows so clearly in today’s post, the Western and Mystery genres have so many points of overlap that it’s a surprise it’s taken so long for us to make this connection. Susan, an award-winning novelist and short-story writer in the Western genre, will be giving the keynote address at the Women Writing the West conference in Kansas City on October 12, where she’ll be talking about the subject of today’s post: Western Noir. She will also be at the WWA conference in Las Vegas on June 25-29 (and there’s still time to get tickets!). The Spur Awards are part of the Las Vegas conference, and EQMM congratulates Susan on her nomination!—Janet Hutchings

Maybe you’re like me. I don’t know how common this is, but I have the strongest feeling that I was born out of time. I don’t belong in this tech-saturated, hyper-plugged-in, twenty-first century global village. No, I should have been born 150 years ago on the Western plains. The Old West. That’s where my heart is.

Call me a poseur. After all, I grew up in Michigan and Missouri, but this passion feels genuine. It has lasted through the years, ever since I was a five-year-old girl clomping around in cowboy boots and a fringe skirt. It was there in spades when I quit my day job to work from home. Ugh. That was tough. But when the pressures of that routine—the boring-but-demanding freelance jobs, the angst that comes with teenaged sons—got me down, I retreated to another time and place. I was along with George Custer and the 7th Cav as they rode to their doom, I was a fly on the wall when William Tecumseh Sherman and Libbie Custer took a train trip through Kansas in 1867 (a journey that actually happened, though I doubt the conversation I described took place), I was present in the summer of 1864 when sixteen-year-old Jesse James first joined Bloody Bill Anderson’s Missouri bushwhackers. These adventures resulted in published stories, one novel (Up From Thunder), and a Spur Award from Western Writers of America.

But lately, when I sit down to write, something strange is happening. Midway through a story my characters turn on me. They reveal themselves to be creepy criminal types I had not intended; my plots take dark and unexpected turns. Consider The Saint of Pox Island (EQMM March/April 2012). This came to me when I was researching frontier medicine for my second (as yet unpublished) novel. My protagonist here is a fine, upstanding physician with no mal intent, but hmmm . . . couldn’t those wicked-looking medical instruments that were his tools of trade be turned to a less friendly purpose? (The tenaculum, “a long-handled device with a sharp claw like a witch’s curled fingers at its business end,” was a particularly nasty piece of work.) Thus the unnamed surgeon with the sweet, womanish features was born! My last published story (unfortunately not by EQMM) deals with a handsome Wyoming sheriff and devoted father who, to say the least, is not what he appears to be and certainly not what I intended when I sat down to write.

This is fun. Recently I told a friend I seem to be turning into Patricia Highsmith, minus (I hope) the famously disagreeable personality, ambiguous sexuality and, alas, prodigious talent. No one writes a great creepy character like Highsmith. Though completely amoral, her characters are motivated by impulses we can all identity with. Somehow, you find yourself pulling for the awful fellow. Ripley, of course, is the prime example. But why has my writing taken this noirish turn?

My friend suggests it’s my subconscious at work, trying to resolve some personal issue. Could be, but I think not. I suspect I am simply yielding to a force that I’ve always felt while researching my Western yarns. Despite the beauty of the shortgrass prairies, the rocky canyons, aspen forests, and sagebrush plains, there is malevolence here as well. You’ll find it in the violence of the weather, in the life-sapping aridity of the deserts, the strange and sometimes frightening rituals of the natives. It is, to quote Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite Western (or any) writers, “a country not noticeably friendly to human occupation.”

And the people drawn to it, again in Stegner’s words, trying to “escape into freedom” are often shady characters not worthy of friendliness. Often they are men and women on the make, seeking to reinvent themselves in a place where there’s no one around to doubt their new act. Consider the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, George Custer. Iconic figures all, courageous, capable of heroic action, but are these “good” men? Eh? Would you want your daughter to marry one of these guys?

Yes, when you think about it, the Old West is a natural fit for a mystery/crime writer. Just ask Bill Pronzini, a prolific California author who enjoys success in both genres. He told me: “That’s one of the main reasons I write contemporary mystery/suspense fiction, and also why I write (and edit) Western fiction. Most of my Western stories—as is the case with much Western fiction in general, past and present—are either detective tales in historical settings or otherwise concern various crimes: murder, robbery, cattle rustling, con games, etc.” Crime and the lawless West go together like Butch and Sundance, Wyatt and Doc, Jesse and Frank.

A strong sense of place is essential in this kind of writing. In Western fiction, nonfiction too, the land is a character in itself. For my money, no one understood this better than the late, great Tony Hillerman. What setting could be more evocative than the moonlit Anasazi ruins he gives us in Thief of Time? How could anyone forget Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, who first teamed up in Hillerman’s 1986 novel Skinwalkers, or imagine them anywhere other than the harshly beautiful Southwest country they police?

We baby boomers grew up on stories of the American West. I once heard Kevin Costner refer to Westerns as “America’s Shakespeare.” I like this. These stories and characters are uniquely American. They are the story of us. We cut our teeth on Rawhide, Bonanza, Gunsmoke. Men of a certain age have an idea of what a real man should be based—at least in part—on Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates, and Matt Dillon. Women of my generation have a special place in their hearts for Clint Eastwood.

And though these images are still part of us, things change.

“Gil Favor is dead and Rowdy Yates talks to empty chairs,” says acclaimed Western novelist Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart and the Spur-winning novels, Shavetail and With Blood In Their Eyes. “The Western needs saving, and one way to do that is to marry it into new forms, the mystery, the detective story, the psychological novel. Those of us who write Western fiction need to think of ourselves as adapters, not nostalgists.”

And there’s so much to adapt! Even the most cursory reading of history presents a topography and cast of characters that is much richer, more complex, and far more interesting than the mythical ones. The people who settled the West were up against it; survival was at stake. And in those days there weren’t many folks in uniform around telling you what you could and couldn’t do. Basically, it boiled down to this: What do I have to do to get by and how can I get away with it?

Editor Janet Hutchings tells me “The Saint of Pox Island” is the first EQMM story to place in WWA’s annual Spur competition. This surprises me! Fellow writers, the Old West is a gold mine. At the risk of blogging myself out of the competition, I urge you to take a look. You’ll see.

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This entry was posted in Adventure, Awards, Characters, Conventions, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Historicals, Noir, Western and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Wonderful, Terrible, Mysterious West” (by Susan Salzer)

  1. Karen Silvoso says:

    What a fascinating article. Almost makes me wish I lived back then! I have read Susan’s “Up From Thunder” and I can’t wait for her next novel!

  2. Sandi Ault says:

    Congrats, Susan, on your Spur finalist SS Award! Loved this post and feel you must be a kindred spirit in cowgirl boots! – Sandi Ault

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