An occasional look at the West, wild and otherwise, in fiction and nonfiction, comics, moving pictures, radio, music, and in ways yet determined or created. Caveat lector: Irregular postings from The Woodstove Whittlers and Wrangling Association may include a tall tale whose veracity may be difficult to ascertain, but whose sincerity should never be doubted. This blog may go on unexpected hiatus due to natural disasters, stampedes, seasonal roundups, or spontaneous potluck suppers. (Oh, and everything here is copyright Duane Spurlock unless otherwise noted.)
My main point of this post is to note the cover art to this Ballantine Western: it's by internationally known illustrator Gino D'Achille.
Until recently I knew D'Achille's work as a fantasy artist, primarily because of his covers for Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series published during the 1970s, before the cover art was turned over to Michael Whelan. D'Achille's Barsoom covers were stark, with little flash of the sort I was used to seeing on Robert E. Howard's books or others by ERB, such as the Krenkel or Frazetta covers used by Ace for the Pellucidar and Venus series. D'Achille's nearly monochromatic paintings appeared blah on the bookshelves next to those over-the-top representations of heroic men and nubile princesses.
And when Michael Whelan's covers started to appear on the Barsoom books, it was like seeing 3-D HD TV after watching nothing but black-and-white on a tube cabinet set.
Looking back now, those covers have an appeal.
But this blog is about westerns.
I hadn't realized D'Achille had painted covers for westerns until I saw this one. It's rather dark (especially when compared to his Barsoom covers), but very effective. It caught my eye.
Exploring the artist's Web site, turns out he has executed quite a few western covers -- including the Piccadilly Western series Hart written by John B. Harvey.
Some of the most engaging western stories are about families: Bonanza, The Big Valley, The Sons of Katie Elder, How the West Was Won/The Macahans come to mind. Of course, these are all TV series and movies, but any number of stories by Thomas Thompson and Tom W. Blackburn also fit in the mold. Louis L'Amour's Sackett saga may be the top contender for expansive version of this sub-genre.
Author William W. Johnstone — and the folks now behind the WWJ brand — certainly understood and understand the appeal of the family saga. One can easily argue that every one of the various WWJ series is in some way or other a family saga.
One of the two newest WWJ series has its feet firmly planted in the family saga mold, that of The Brothers O'Brien.
The opening book of the series describes the establishing of the O'Brien clan's ranch, Dromore, by Shamus, his wife Saraid, and his segundo Luther Ironside. Four boys are born to the O'Briens before the death of the missus, and this band of gritty men face off any threats to their independence or the well-being of Dromore.
In both of the series' first two novels, the villains are truly evil. In the first novel, a scheming daughter of a Mexican landowner brings about the death of her own father as she schemes to bring the wealth of the O'Briens under her control. In the second, honest-to-goodness Satan worshippers plot revenge on the O'Briens for the hanging of family member after caught rustling ten years earlier. One wonders if this O'Briens-against-the-forces-of-Hell's-evils will be a continuing theme for the series.
The writing styles for the two books differ, suggesting two ghost-writers are behind the books, but the characterizations are consistent, and J.A. Johnstone or someone has done a good job checking continuity. The various members of the cast are engaging and entertaining to follow in their interactions with one another and with other characters. Like other WWJ series, this one likely will go long and far.
I'm not usually a fan of the plot that features a dude or greenhorn heading west and colliding with the earthy western customs, only to end up won over by the locals and having the “veneer of civilization” (in the words of Edgar Rice Burroughs) stripped away to leave something more straightforward and honest. But Matthew P. Mayo's considerable storytelling skills excellently overcome the obstacles inherent in this vintage plot, and he delivers a well-told, nicely paced, exciting novel that any western reader will find very satisfying.
In Dead Man's Ranch, a stranger — Bryan — comes to town, but everyone recognizes him as the spitting image of his father, who died recently and left one of the finest ranches in the territory to this son, who was sent East to be raised by his mother's parents after she died. There are complications to Bryan's taking over the ranch, of course: he's an Eastern dandy and doesn't have a clue to his family's story (his grandfather, who raised the boy, had disinherited Bryan's mother when she married the rough-and-tumble western rancher, and subsequently kept Bryan in the dark about his beginnings as he raised the boy, even returning unopened any letters and gifts from Bryan's father when they came to the house); his dead father left behind the kindly Esperanza, unmarried, but with a grown bastard son, good-hearted Brandon, who has spent most of his time in a bottle since his father's death. There's also the owner of the neighboring ranch—also a widower—who wants Bryan's new property; his reckless, hot-headed, and frequently drunken son, who will perform any violent act necessary to get hold of the dead man's ranch to gain favor from his hard-nosed father; and the rancher's daughter, who frequently mediates between the two hot-headed men of her family.
Throw in a psychopathic serial killer who has heard about the complicated mess about settling the dead man's property from a lawyer who was in his cups at a poker table (and who later ends up dead in an alley—guess who does him in?), and you've got all the ingredients for a western stew that is muy caliente.
Mayo weaves together all the tangled strands and pulls it off in fine fashion. He is a veteran western writer and historian of the West who has penned novels for Robert Hale's Black Horse Western imprint. (You can learn more about Black Horse Westerns at The Black Horse Extra blog.) It's a pleasure to see his work now made available to a wider mass-market audience. Mayo has recently released the first novel about his series character, Roamer, titled Wrong Town. It is available as a paperbound book or as an ebook for the Kindle. Readers who try Dead Man's Ranch will soon find themselves searching for his other books.