“The conventional Western,” writes novelist John Williams in a 1961 essay, “involves an elemental conflict between the personified forces of Good and Evil”: Cowboy v. Cattle Rustler, for instance, or Cowboy v. Indian. In the “Marshal v. Bank Robber” variation on the formula described above, the Law Man acts as the unflinching, unbending champion of morality and the rule of law, as shiny as the star on his shirtfront. But in recent and not-so-recent visions of the West, the Law figures clumsily, impotently, and sometimes corruptly, as just one more force in a great and teeming chaos. This list of must-read crime titles forms part of a lesser-known West, a deeply and awesomely weird landscape in which the line between Good and Evil shimmers like a mirage:
1. Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie
People tend to read Alexie as a humorist, but that might just be because laughing at things makes them less painful. Alexie’s noirish second novel unfolds as a mystery, but in the process it transcends the genre: when scalped white men begin to appear around Seattle, an Alex Jonesian radio personality (Truck Schulz) whips his listeners into a racist frenzy. Running alongside the resolution of the murders is the story of John Smith, a tribeless Native American whose descent into madness is written with sympathy and just the right touch of dark humor. A wonderful book.
2. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
This Costa-winning novel is told in the thick brogue of Thomas McNulty, who has to rank among the most original, funny, and lovable cowboys of all time. An Irishman fleeing the Famine, McNulty comes to America and, in short order, befriends and falls in love with fellow street urchin John Cole. After a stint as dance-card flaneurs in a mining camp, the two join the Federal Cavalry and eventually end up Out West. After that, stuff gets pretty dark—in a good way. Barry’s story reminds us that, in the right hands, the myths of the West can be remade and rediscovered.
3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Apart from invoking the New Mexican landscape in gorgeous prose, Cather’s retelling of the death and life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy ( “Latour” in this lightly fictionalized version) offers readers a vivid portrait of the West in the first days of American occupation. In 1851, Cather’s Nuevo México is a potpourri of cultures and languages: Pueblo dialects, Apache, and Navajo mingle with Spanish and French (plus, the occasional snatch of gringlish). Parts of this novel will feel uncomfortably dated; Cather’s sympathies clearly lie, for instance, with the French Jesuits as they seek to stamp out the hybridized Catholicism practiced by the mestizo priests of Taos. But her careful portrait also captures some of the impossible arrogance of the priests’ quest—and, like all great villains, hers have basically good intentions.
4. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
DeWitt’s hilarious, weird, wonderful novel follows two hired assassins, Eli and Charlie Sisters, on their latest job for “the Commodore,” a mysterious figure of infamy and riches: kill Hermann Warm, who has “stolen” something from the Commodore and now mucks about in the gold camps of California. Like the assassins themselves, however, the mission is much more than it appears at first glance.
5. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s novel opens on the day Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old Ojibwe boy living on an unnamed reservation in North Dakota, learns that his mother has been brutally raped. What follows is Coutts’s quest to find the identity of his mother’s attacker and bring him to justice. This novel is at once a mystery and a careful and sympathetic portrait of a family and community healing in the wake of profound trauma.
6. Warlock by Oakley Hall
Written just as the Cold War reached a fever pitch, Hall’s Warlock is an awesomely original look at the orgiastic violence of the West. Everything in this town, based loosely on the Tombstone of Earp lore, revolves around money: the price of a few rustled cattle, the salary for a gunslinging marshal, the cost of medicine to treat those wounded in the fighting. “Pay ain’t the only reason for a thing,” insists the doomed leader of a group of striking silver miners—maybe, but in Hall’s Warlock, pay is very nearly all that matters. Thomas Pynchon called it one of America’s finest novels, and he might be right.
7. The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf
The unforgettable opener to Haruf’s novel features 80-year-old Edith Goodnough in a hospital bed, a cop watching her carefully from the door: Goodnough, we learn, lies accused of arson and murder. From there, the villain’s neighbor tells Edith’s story: a childhood spent under her father’s iron fist, and an adulthood spent in more or less the same way. A beautifully told novel, one of Haruf’s best.
8. Owning It All by William Kittredge
Among other things, Kittredge’s collection of essays explores the peculiar virtues of breaking the law. “Drinking and Driving” features perhaps my favorite first line of all time: “Deep in the far hearts of my upbringing, a crew of us 16-year-old lads were driven crazy with ill-defined midsummer sadness by the damp, sour-smelling sweetness of nighttime alfalfa fields, an infinity of stars and moonglow, and no girlfriends whatsoever.” But Kittredge’s essays also explore the notion that, of all the many and varied crimes of the West, perhaps none is as grave as the crime perpetrated against the landscape by those who seek to profit from it.
9. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s novel still sets the bar for the Western Noir, an updated version of the Cowboy and Outlaw tale in which the Outlaw prevails, prevails, and prevails again. This book is worth re-reading for its portrait of hired killer Anton Chigurh, a villain who seems to have bubbled up from the very earth. Like the unjustly accused crooks of Hall’s novel, Chigurh becomes something like an avenging spirit, a walking curse sowing awesome destruction in his wake.
10. Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain
A week after 9/11, a lawman named Ray shot and killed his wife, Debbie, in the Arizona desert. Years later, Debbie’s son wrote a beautiful book about what happened, and why. With a light touch, Justin St. Germain also re-wrote the story of the West, taking careful measure of the distance between its myths and the facts on the ground. St. Germain was raised in the real-life Tombstone, now a dingy tourist trap dependent on the legend (mostly apocryphal, the author notes) of Wyatt Earp. St. Germain is Oakley Hall’s rightful heir: just as the paranoia of the McCarthy era infuses Hall’s novel, so does the country’s murderous mood in the wake of 9/11 infuse Son of a Gun. The interlinked stories—of the author’s grief, of his mother and Ray, of Earp and Doc Holliday—are told against the backdrop of America bearing up for its latest act of ritualized violence. As good on a second read as it is on the first.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.