Monday, October 14, 2013

My Favorite Western Authors

A friend of mine with a growing interest in Westerns who hasn't read much in the genre suggested that I do a blog post about my favorite Western authors. After some thought, I decided that I can do that, with one condition: I have to confine it to authors who are no longer with us. I know almost everyone who's currently writing Westerns, and I don't want any of them coming across this post and wondering why I didn't mention them. It's an unavoidable fact: some writers I love as people but don't care for their books. Others I love their books but don't . . . well, never mind. I'm going to confine the list to ten, with the usual warning that if you ask me again tomorrow, the selections might change. I'm also going to keep it to authors whose work is at least somewhat readily available. I love Harry Olmsted's stories, for example, but none of them have been reprinted and you'd have to buy the original pulps to read them. Some are acquired tastes, too, real love 'em or hate 'em authors, so consider that fair warning.

Enough qualifying. On to the list, which is in alphabetical order.

Walt Coburn – Maybe the most inconsistent Western author ever, capable of sheer, breathtaking excellence as well as utter mediocrity composed in a drunken haze. But Coburn at the top of his game captured the authenticity of the Old West probably better than any other author I've ever read. He also came up with some of the most complicated plots filled with raw emotional angst that you'll ever find in the genre.

H.A. DeRosso – The darkest of all the Western noir authors, the Jim Thompson of the Western. He wrote only a handful of novels, but they're all good. Several of them have been reprinted in the past fifteen years.

T.T. Flynn – Flynn's plots are pretty traditional, but he writes so well it doesn't matter. Also, his novels are often more emotionally complex than they appear at first.

Ben Haas – Writing as John Benteen, Richard Meade, Thorne Douglas, and Ben Elliott, Haas was the best action writer of the Twentieth Century other than Robert E. Howard. I've written plenty on this blog about him. Pick up anything he wrote. I guarantee you're in for a good time.

Elmer Kelton – The man picked by a poll of the Western Writers of America as the best Western author of all time. I have a hard time singling out one author as the best of anything, but Kelton was very, very good for a long time. Nobody was ever better at writing about the contemporary West. And he was one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, too.

Lewis B. Patten – Patten's work is similar to DeRosso's, but his novels usually have happy endings that keep them from being quite as bleak. His books became more inconsistent as his career went along, so you're usually better off looking for novels from the Fifties and Sixties, although he was still capable of good work during the Seventies. If you run across a book you don't like, give him another chance.

Leslie Scott – Scott is one of those acquired tastes. He wrote many of the Jim Hatfield novels in the pulp TEXAS RANGERS under the house-name Jackson Cole. You'll be more likely to find some of his long series of paperback novels about Texas Ranger Walt Slade, published under the name Bradford Scott. His plots are repetitious, his prose is really purple at times (especially when he's describing landscapes), but he wrote great, over-the-top action scenes. His stand-alones, often based on historical incidents, are also good. But if you try one of his books and don't like it, there's not much point in trying another, except for the fact that his earlier books generally have better plots.

Gordon D. Shireffs – Almost the equal of Flynn, Haas, and Short when it comes to hardboiled action Westerns, and his depictions of the American Southwest are maybe the best of them all. He was also an excellent plotter.

Luke Short (Frederick D. Glidden) – Not quite noir, but his Westerns are definitely on the hardboiled side and often have some sort of mystery angle. He could write great action scenes as well. His books from the Forties and Fifties are the best as far as I'm concerned, although all his work is worth reading.

W.C. Tuttle – Really the only humorous Western writer I like, and that's probably because the comedy (which borders on slapstick at times) is balanced by plenty of action and complex mystery plots. Tuttle is best known for his stories and novels featuring range detectives Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens, but he also wrote a long series of novellas in the pulp EXCITING WESTERN about a similar pair known as Tombstone and Speedy. He's also famous for a series about a W.C. Fields-like vaudeville performer who winds up the sheriff of an Arizona town. His stand-alones are good, too.

I would have included Robert E. Howard if he had lived to write more Westerns, as according to his letters he planned to do. He actually invented the Western noir in stories such as "The Vultures of Whapeton", "Wild Water", and "Vulture's Sanctuary". If you haven't picked up the collection of his traditional Westerns from the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, I give it a high recommendation. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote the outline for that collection.)

So there are ten Western writers and a sort-of bonus eleventh one you'd be well-advised to seek out if you're looking to broaden your Western reading horizons. You probably won't like all of them, but I think the chances are good you'll discover some new favorite authors among them. If any of you want to throw in recommendations for other authors, feel free to do so in the comments. If there are enough, I'll do a follow-up post based on them.


(The links below are just examples of some of the books by these authors. Many more are available on Amazon and other on-line booksellers and in used bookstores.)

29 comments:

Walker Martin said...

I love lists like this. Even if I disagree it's fun figuring out why. The only author I would definitely leave off your list would be Leslie Scott but I understand your reasons for putting him on.

I've recently read about a dozen or so of Walt Coburn's novelets in WESTERN STORY and I would have to say he was one of the best. Sure, sometimes he had too much to drink maybe and the plot suffered. But he was great at the western dialog and slang and his characters acted like cowboys might really act.

I'm glad to see that you have Luke Short on the list. Also W.C. Tuttle who has been unjustly forgotten. I wish you had included a couple of my favorites like Dane Coolidge, Ernest Haycox, Merle Constiner, and F.C. Robertson but I guess such a list will always be subjective to a certain extent.

Thirty or forty years ago, you would have been in trouble because of the Max Brand collectors who would have formed a lynch mob and headed for Texas. But most of these guys have gone to the big corral in the sky and there are only a few of them left. I imagine Jon Tuska would not be happy to see Max Brand left off the list but I have no problem.

I hope you do a follow up about this subject and I hope to see more comments about the 10 best from other readers.

James Reasoner said...

I like Constiner a lot, but it's been quite a while since I read anything by him, so I just didn't think of him. He probably wouldn't crack my Top Ten, but he was an excellent author. It took me a long time to warm up to Haycox, but I want to read more of his work. I just haven't read much by Robertson and nothing, as far as I recall, by Coolidge, but I have books by both of them on my shelves and hope to get to them eventually.

I thought about Max Brand, but he's just such an oddball writer, almost a genre unto himself. I really have to be in the right mood to read his books. Same with Zane Grey.

wayne d. dundee said...

I can't disagree with anyone you have listed here, James, although there are a couple I'm not very familiar with ... But one that I certainly would add to the list - and probably quite near the top - would be T.V. Olsen ... But that's what makes these lists so much fun: There's almost always a core number that most will agree on, but then a handful of puts and takes that likely reveals as much about a particular reader's personal taste than the subject matter.

James Reasoner said...

Olsen is another author whose work I just haven't read enough of to form an opinion about it. But I certainly need to. Quite a few people whose opinion I respect really like his books.

Anonymous said...

Could you point out some of Walt Coburn’s better work? I’ve read a number of his short stories for Star Western. They were good but had an almost surreal need to end in a romantic happy ending.
I recall one that built to a brutal gun-battle in a canyon with the wounded hero climbing a rocky slope to where a Maxim gun was hidden, then turning it on his foes.
Two pages later--- a double wedding.

Excellent substantial post, good to muse over for some time, I think. Thanks.

John Hocking

Charles Gramlich said...

I've actually only read about half of these. I need to expand I see.

Heath Lowrance said...

Glad to see Patten and Short on this list. I'm off to find stuff by DeRosso now.

James Reasoner said...

My favorite Coburn book is STIRRUP HIGH, his fictionalized memoir of growing up on his family's ranch in Montana. Of the novels I've read my favorite is probably BARB WIRE. Crazy, overly complicated plot, as usual, but a real sense of the passing of the Old West. All the collections of his pulp stories published in paperback by Leisure are pretty good, with some stories better than others. Most of them are from his earlier period when he was writing a lot for Fiction House. Five Star published a collection in hardback called THE SECRET OF CRUTCHER'S CABIN that I liked a lot. It never made it to paperback, but used copies of the hardback can be found on-line. Some of his best work was found in WESTERN STORY in the late Thirties and Forties. One of the small press publishers has a collection of those stories coming out, but I don't think it's been announced yet so I won't go into the details until he's ready.

Karl said...

Great list. Glad to see Lewis Patten on it. "Peter Dawson" (related to "Luke Short" is another favorite of mine.

James Reasoner said...

I agree, Peter Dawson was one of the top-notch Western pulp authors and his novels are excellent, too.

Walker Martin said...

Concerning Walt Coburn, the dozen or so recent novelets that I read were all from WESTERN STORY in the late 1930's. Frankly I think Coburn's best work was in the 20 to 40 page format. The reason he wrote so many novelets(over a thousand) was because even Coburn probably realized that he was better at the shorter form of story.

I think the longer novel form presented a problem for Coburn because he had to plot for 200 or so pages and tie everything up at the end. This would require a lot more work than spending a few days on a long novelet.

For instance I read Coburn's novel MAVERICK which was written in the late 1920's. The first 100 pages were fine but then the story fell apart as his hero fought in WW I and amazingly came across his long lost mother who just happened to be in the operating room when he was wounded. At this point my suspension of disbelief fell apart and it was a struggle to finish the novel.

He definitely was better in the short form but even then he had to follow the pulp and slick formula which often demanded a romantic ending, including some hard to believe weddings that came out of no where at the end of some of the stories. I'm almost positive that these silly endings were not Coburn's idea. The editors demanded the romance and Coburn most of the time tried to keep it at a minimum.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, one of the things I noticed most as I began to explore pulp westerns, was just how many short stories and novellas concluded with a wedding. I couldn’t help but contrast this with what went on in contemporaneous detective and mystery stories, where a conclusion involving matrimony was… unlikely.

So it was probably an editorial choice, or simply what the trained writer knew the reader expected. In my experience with Coburn in particular this really created an odd imbalance between a dusty, bloody, hell-for-leather scene of lethal action, and an abrupt hearts-and-flowers, happily-ever-after ending.

One author who seems to have handled this a little differently, at least in the ten or twelve of his stories I’ve read, was Frank Bonham.
I really like Bonham’s stuff—it reminds me a little of Harold Lamb. Protagonists who aren’t Rangers or marshals or even cowboys, but railroad men, stage drivers and such. Mixed with strong period detail, this gives Bonham’s stuff a good dose of realism which, for me at least, makes his sometimes over-the-top action climaxes extra satisfying.

What do you think of Bonham, James?

John

James Reasoner said...

I've actually read more of Bonham's juveniles than I have his Westerns, but I liked the pulp stories I've read. I have several of his novels on my shelves. Wasn't it Bonham who wrote the great memoir about ghosting for Ed Earl Repp? I think it's in his collection ONE RIDE TOO MANY.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Very encouraging to see so many responses! (Anyway, much more so than my low, low sales figures for Kindle Westerns.) It's debates like this give me hope the Western might not be as dead as some would tell us. Good to see others recommending T. V. Olsen and Peter Dawson, James. They would have been on my list, too.

Stephen Mertz said...

I’m sure you anticipated numerous comments to this find post! What makes you such a reliable resource in discovering new writers, James, is the sheer breadth of your range in reading. This is a great list. I’ve always wanted to try Leslie and Flynn, and your post will prompt me to do so. T.T is one of those guys who was just everywhere in the pulps and is today wholly forgotten. I love Walt Coburn and your take on him is 100% accurate. I must say that, while this is a list of personal favorites rather than of influential writers, I couldn’t help but note the absence of Louis L’Amour. I think Louis burned people out due to his (still?) dominant ubiquity, but the fact remains that he towers over at least three generations of western writers: he was a star in the pulps, his 50s and 60s work is highly regarded both commercially and artistically, and I would imagine many a contemporary western novelist was either sparked or in some other way influenced by him. I even think a few of his later big books, like The Lonesome Gods, are quite good. I guess another rap against him is the Ranch Romances “end with a wedding” formula he favored, but he was a genuine westerner who knew what he was writing about. I’ve often thought that he consciously patterned his PR image after Walt Coburn.

James Reasoner said...

L'Amour's a tough case for me. A few of his books are among the best Western novels I've read, but a lot of them are really sloppy. I'd agree with two of your points about three generations of Western writers, Steve, but I'm not sure L'Amour could be considered a star in the pulps. He was popular with the readers, no doubt about that, or else the editors wouldn't have put his name on the cover as much as they did, but I think he was just one of dozens of writers on about the same level. Also, he sold the bulk of his pulp work to Leo Margulies instead of spreading out over two or three or more different publishers. I also know that if Fred Glidden (Luke Short) had said yes when Bantam asked him to do three books a year, they never would have set out to make L'Amour a bestseller the way they did. However, there's no denying he was a huge influence, and like I said, there are two or three of his books that would stand up to anything anybody else wrote. (I'm thinking of FLINT and TO TAME A LAND, maybe THE DAYBREAKERS.)

Chap O'Keefe said...

Stephen, T. T. Flynn is not wholly forgotten. At least four of his Leisure Books collections were republished in paperback just last month by AmazonEncore. Believe me, a number of living writers would love to receive such attention!

Walker Martin said...

Concerning T.T. Flynn, I like him also and have a dozen or so of his books collecting his western novelets from the pulps. Soon Altus Press will be publishing volume one of MR MADDOX, which stars his series character from DIME DETECTIVE.

Nik said...

An excellent informative post, and plenty of equally fascinating responses. All of a sudden, my reading list just got too big, I think. Thanks, James!

Lee Goldberg said...

You inspired me to compile a lost of my own favorites...

http://www.leegoldberg.com/?p=18748

James Reasoner said...

And a good list it is, too, Lee. Whittington is going to be one of the other authors I talk about in a follow-up post, probably next week.

Walker Martin said...

Lee Goldberg's list is interesting also. Of the deceased writers that he mentions I would have to say that Elmore Leonard deserves to be on a list of 10 best. He wrote 8 or 9 westerns before the market forced him to switch to crime novels.

James Reasoner said...

I thought about putting Elmore Leonard on my list because of his Western short stories. That collection of them that came out a few years ago is a wonderful book. I like his Western novels that I've read, too, but his short stories are something special.

Kurt Reichenbaugh said...

Thanks for this and Lee Goldberg's list. Now I have new (new to me!) writers to check out. Another one whose westerns I enjoy is Clifton Adams. I'll grab his whenever I find one in the stores.

Sean McLachlan said...

Great resource, thanks!
I'd love it if you did a similar list of favorite Western pulp magazines.

Speeddemon said...

Like both of your and Lee's lists. Have read many of them, due to Leisure. Will have to track down W. C. Tuttle and Harry Whittington books. Five others, that I really like a lot are; T.V. Olson, Les Savagae, Jr., Wayne D. Overholser, Ralph Compton and Terry C. Johnston. Then from your list it would have been; T.T. Flynn, Elmer Kelton, from Lee's list Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard. So I'd have 11 rather than 10, couldn't leave Compton off, since I liked everyone of his books.

Drew said...

I recently created a website for my grandfather, western author Wayne D Overholser. waynedoverholser.com. He was a pretty decent storyteller.

James Reasoner said...

Thanks for that link, Drew. Excellent website, and I'm going to do a post about it. I haven't read enough of your grandfather's work to consider him a favorite, but I've enjoyed everything I've read by him and intend to read more.

Joanne Walpole said...

TT Flynn is one of my favourites.