Top 10 Best Western Mysteries
There are few things more American than a good Western novel. My favorite kind of Western is one that not only captures the essence of the West, but one that keeps you pinned to your chair like a good mystery. Moreover, I love Westerns that break the traditional mold of the genre. No silly showdowns at high noon. No loner gunslingers who wander into town and save it from the bandits who rule the streets without law. Here are my favorite novels that do both, minus the tumbleweeds:
- Smonk by Tom Franklin
Tarantino-stylized violence mixed with Nabokovian prose—what could be better? Admittedly, a novel starring a murdering rapist won’t be for everyone. Nearly every chapter is blood-soaked. But the pace is lightning fast, the language always fresh, the town of Old Texas in 1911 is gorgeously rendered, and the ending has a haunting resonance that makes the carnage not only feel literary, but necessary.
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
This one has it all: history turned into art, nuanced character development, and a few great train robberies. Hansen’s portrait of Jesse James not only avoids cliché, it completely reimagines the outlaw. The dialogue is second to none. The film adaptation starring Brad Pitt is pure cinematic beauty and considering the source material, it’s no wonder why.
- Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Speaking of beauty, the prose in Taylor Brown’s debut about a young couple on the run from Confederate bounty hunters during the Civil War is the best I’ve read in the last five years. Brown is simply a wizard wordsmith. The story, a historical chase thriller, rockets forward at a breakneck pace. I felt genuine envy as a writer from the first page to the last.
- The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout
When it comes to Westerns, strong female protagonists as richly drawn as Mary Bee Cuddy are few and far between. Her task is an arduous one: transporting three women who’ve lost their minds to unspeakable grief back east across the dangerous landscape of 1850s Nebraska. It’s a Western tale that breaks the traditional mold of the genre while still retaining a classic aura.
- The Revenant by Michael Punke
By now almost everyone has at least of heard of, if not seen, the film portrayal that won Leonardo DiCaprio his first Academy Award, but not many are aware that the movie was based on a novel that measures up to the film in every regard. This is the pinnacle of Western revenge.
- Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch
Only about half of this novel takes place in America, but Lynch’s saga about Irishman Coll Coyle fleeing a hired killer is a Western thriller in the truest sense of the word. Coyle, with blood on his own hands, evades the merciless and sociopathic John Faller from Ireland all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. The taut chase, propelled by lyrical prose, was one I read compulsively in two sittings.
- Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
No other writer today crafts short stories that have the narrative momentum of a novel like Annie Proulx. No other American writer today deserves the Nobel Prize more than she. There are three absolute stunners in this collection: The Mud Below, The Half-Skinned Steer, and Brokeback Mountain. Heartbreaking and pulse-pounding at once, often times in the same sentence, this collection is what turned me onto the Western genre in the first place.
- True Grit by Charles Portis
What else can be said about this Western classic? The voice of 14-year-old Mattie Ross is on par with the greatest young narrators of all time, right up there with Holden Caulfield and Tom Sawyer. The manhunt for Tom Chaney is riveting drama. The humor is deadpan and side-splitting. And who can forget one-eyed Rooster Cogburn?
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
The second novel on this list to be adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. They certainly have good taste. Most McCarthy fans believe that Blood Meridian is his masterpiece. And they’re right, but this one is much more fun. Forget the fact that it takes place in 1980, this novel is as Western as anything out of the 19th century.
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
It’s only five years old but destined to be a classic. Eli and Charlie, hitman brothers on one last assignment to kill gold miner Hermit Kermit Warm, discover that their target has invented something inspired, turning their mission and motivation upside-down. Packed with humor and moving reflection so rarely seen in Westerns, this novel tops the list. John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are slated to star as the brothers in the upcoming film. When can I reserve my opening night tickets?