I am a fan of western short stories and novels that I read while growing up and still reread today when I need something light with a good style. My two favorite western writers are Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour.
Elmore Leonard grew up in Detroit and after college decided that he wanted to become a writer. He wanted to learn the craft and make money selling stories at the same time, so he picked a popular genre, westerns, and began writing. His western short stories were published in the 1950s in most of the popular slick magazines of the day and in some of the better pulp western magazines. They are collected in THE COMPLETE WESTERN STORIES OF ELMORE LEONARD, published by William Morrow in 2004, a collection that is still available today in trade paperback.
Leonard’s day job was writing copy for an ad agency. He apparently never visited Arizona, which is the setting for all his western stories, including his novels, until many years after the literary crimes were committed. He researched the area, read books about he frontier and pored over the monthly magazine ARIZONA HIGHWAYS to see what the area looked like. Then he let his imagination soar. It was in these stories that he perfected the crisp, cutting dialogue that would become his trademark. By the end of the 1950s Leonard realized that the western genre was dying, so he switched to the crime-infested streets of the big cities. Still, it is his western stories that are a writer’s style book.
In my opinion his best two short stories are THE TONTO WOMAN, first published in 1982 and a classic in any genre, and 3:10 TO YUMA, which was made into a movie in the 1950s and refilmed recently. Leonard also wrote eight western novels, including HOMBRE, 1961, made into a movie with Paul Newman, and VALDEZ IS COMING, 1970, filmed with Burt Lancaster as Valdez. Both are great movies, but the novels are better.
Louis L’Amour began writing pulp stories in the late 1930s. By the early 1950s he had switched to westerns almost exclusively, and there he used a formula that disgusted critics and earned him a legion of fans. His heroes were not embattled farmers, miners, merchants, railroad moguls, or angst-soaked young men and women trying to find themselves. His heroes were common men who were wide at the shoulder, narrow at the hip and fast with a gun. The formula is still popular today. His novels were published by Bantam, which still reprints them regularly and places them in every paperback stand in the nation, including your favorite grocery and airport bookstore.
L’Amour was a heavy user of the first-person narrative, and it is fair to say he perfected it. I fell in love with it from reading his novels and decided to allow my character Tommy Carmellini tell his own story in future novels. That has worked well for me, even though first person is a difficult way to tell a thriller.
Although L’Amour wrote a lot of forgettable stuff, he wrote some great stories too. My four favorites are: HELLER WITH A GUN, 1955, made into a movie with the title HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS; LAST STAND AT PAPAGO WELLS, 1957; HIGH LONESOME, 1962; and MUSTANG MAN, 1966. Just when you think you have L’Amour’s formula all figured out, you will be delighted by CONAGHER, 1969, which was made into a movie starring Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross. It’s a love story and just flat terrific.
Louis L’Amour sold more stories to the movies than any other writer before or since, over fifty. Movies of his books have starred most of the A-list male and female stars of that era, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Bridgette Bardot, Anthony Quinn, and Sophia Loren, to name just a few.
When you need some light escapist reading, go back to those imaginary days of the old west when every man carried a gun and the good guys always won. Let Elmore Leonard and Louis L’Amour take you there.