This is embarrassing… I wrote this post a few months ago and thought I’d published it… but it’s actually been sitting in my “drafts” folder all this time. If you are looking for a great book to read, I have a strong recommendation for you:
For years, Paul Bishop has been telling me that Clair Huffaker’s THE COWBOY & THE COSSACK is one of the greatest westerns he’s ever read & one of his favorite books. I finally got around to reading it and, holy crap, he was underselling it. It’s everything he said and more… yes, it’s another cattle drive story, and filled with the usual archetypes and tropes, but none of it feels like a cliche, largely because of the unique setting, the culture clash, the spare writing, and the colorful characters. What I wasn’t expecting, and greatly appreciated, was the humor and the little, surprisingly moving, touches of humanity. In many ways, the book reminded me of my favorite book of all time: Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE. I don’t understand why THE COWBOY AND THE COSSACK hasn’t been made into a movie yet. But it’s definitely one of my favorite westerns now, too… right up there with DOVE, A.B. Guthrie’s THE BIG SKY (and the sequel, THE WAY WEST), Thomas Berger’s LITTLE BIG MAN, James Robert Daniel’s THE COMANCHE KID, Elmer Kelton’s THE GOOD OLD BOYS, Frederick Manfred’s RIDERS OF JUDGMENT (and SCARLET PLUME), and Jim Bosworth’s THE LONG WAY NORTH. Stop whatever you are doing and read THE COWBOY AND THE COSSACK. Don’t wait years like I did…
I love a good western novel…but there are so few writers who can do them well, avoiding the dusty cliches and tropes of the genre to deliver a powerful, memorable, original story with flesh-and-blood characters. So here are my 10 favorite western authors, in no particular order:
Larry McMurtry – Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo are two of the best westerns ever. Some of his follow-ups were entertaining, but never matched these two.
Bill Crider – I loved his books Outrage at Blancoand Texas Vigilante, which should be read back-to-back as one, wonderfully-told tale. I’ve been trying for years to get a movie version of those books off the ground and have come tantalizingly close several times. But I haven’t given up hope! He’s also written several other great westerns, too.
Glendon Swarthout – His terrific novel The Shootist is a classic and, fittingly, was the basis for John Wayne’s final western.
Harry Whittington – His westerns (Trouble Rides Tall, Vengeance is the Spur, etc.) are every bit as tightly-plotted and leanly-written as his fine crime novels…and were his only books to be adapted for films and movies.
Elmore Leonard – Before he was the king of crime, he was the king of westerns…many of his books and stories became beloved western movies, too… like 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre and Valdez is Coming.
Thomas Eidson – His book The Last Ridebecame the vastly under-rated film Missing directed by Ron Howard. His westernSt. Agne’s Standis also terrific.
There are scores of professional writers out there who are incredibly prolific, sell huge numbers of crime novels and westerns, and yet are virtually unknown. One of those writers is Robert Vaughan, who has sold 40 million books, mostly westerns. He was interviewed about his under-the-radar career recently and he’s pretty frank about his lack of celebrity.
I have written well over 400 books. If I had written every one of those books under my own name, Robert Vaughan would be a name that is immediately recognized. I would have established something of value that my survivors could capitalize on after I die…(such as I am doing for others now….continuing the name of a deceased author for the benefit of his survivors). Don’t get me wrong. I am also benefiting from this name….but with this author….and with two others, I have had seven books make it onto the NYT best seller list. Two novels, LOVE’S BOLD JOURNEY, and LOVE’S SWEET AGONY, which I wrote as Patricia Matthews, made number one on the list. In 1981, I sold 6 million books. In my life time, I have probably sold 40 million books, but nobody knows who I am.
But I bet he didn’t really have a choice. Like many writers, me included, he probably took the jobs that came along to pay the bills (do you think I wanted to write for The New Adventures of Flipper or Baywatch?) and didn’t necessarily take a long-range view of what the cumulative effect might be on his career.
I have enormous respect for authors like Vaughan. They are true craftsman, and don’t get nearly the attention, or financial compensation, that they deserve for their crimes novels and westerns. I’m talking about pros like James Reasoner, Mel Odom, Bill Crider, Robert Randisi, Ed Gorman, Raymond Obstfeld, Mike Newton, Chet Cunningham, Donald Bain, to name a few… guys who can write just about anything in any genre…thrillers novels, crime novels, western novels, romance novels and do it well. And who have ghost-written scores of books, or toiled under house names (a pseudonym created by a publisher or book packager for a novel or series of books), while others repeated the lion’s share of profits from their efforts. A few such writers have emerged from the shadows into wide popularity… guys like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John Harvey, and John Jakes… but most toil in obscurity, writing sometimes hundreds of books in virtual anonymity as “work-for-hire” authors.
But I believe that is finally changing, thanks to Amazon and the e-book revolution. There has been a massive shift in the economics of publishing, and it’s increasingly becoming financially impractical for a prolific, self-starting professional author to toil in the “work-for-hire” field, where you don’t own the copyright, advances can be as low as $3000, and royalties as pitiful as 1 or 2%…if you get any at all.
More and more writers who used to live on work-for-hire gigs are now turning to self-publishing…which offers them the opportunity to own their books, make more money, and become known for their work. For example, Crider, Odom and Reasoner are writing and publishing the Rancho Diablo westerns… just the kind of “house name” series they used to toil on as anonymously “work-for-hire” writers with no ownership stake.
Vaughan, meanwhile, has a new western out under his own name (When Hell Came to Texas) and is also writing romances for Pocket Books with his wife Ruth under the pen-name “Sara Luck.”
And though the Sara Luck books don’t have my name, Ruth and I at least own the name.
I’ve been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment.
There’s a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn’t it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.
The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL PRODUCTIONS.