George Pelecanos has become one of the most acclaimed crime writers of his generation with a stylish, subtle, and deeply moral series of novels that show a side of Washington, D.C., the tour buses don't visit. Drama City, a standalone story of an ex-con trying to go straight, is his latest, and we recently chose his previous book, 'Hard Revolution,' as the top mystery & thriller book in our Best of the Decade... So Far feature (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/15379681). Given the city settings of his novels, you might be surprised to find out that he considers himself most of all a fan of Westerns, but any reader of his will easily hear the echoes of those compelling tales of good and evil (and the space in between) in his own stories. Here is his introduction to his recommended list of the 10 Westerns to Read:
From an early age, I got my sense of story from watching old movies on television with my father and grandfather on Sunday afternoons. Westerns were my favorites and remain so to this day. When I started writing books, I stuck to the urban setting with which I was familiar, but I never lost my love for the genre. No surprise, then, that I am the author of numerous contemporary crime novels that are actually Westerns in disguise. Here are ten Western novels that I consider to be essential. Some of them were made into very good films. Do yourself a favor and read the novels.
True Grit by Charles Portis
True Grit: In 1870's Arkansas, 14-year old Mattie Ross hires hard-drinking, one-eyed sheriff Rooster Cogburn to track the men who killed her father. Dryly funny, filled with action, historically accurate, and stunningly written in the first-person voice of Mattie, this is an American classic that can stand up to the best of Mark Twain. It's that good.
Monte Walsh: From the author of 'Shane,' a book detailing the life of a cowboy from his youth in 1872 to his death in 1913. Originally written as series of short stories, this is a valentine to male friendship, living one's life by a certain code, the pleasures of work, and a eulogy of sorts for the passing of the frontier. The chapter called "Christmas Eve at the Slash Y" is read aloud by some parents to their children on that holiday. Indeed, the novel itself has become an almost religious experience for certain readers. The inscription on Monte Walsh's tombstone reads, "A Good Man with a Horse." In the world that Schaeffer describes, it is the highest compliment a man can get.
Cottonwood: A Novel: From Scott Phillips (author of 'The Ice Harvest') comes a bawdy historical epic tinged with humor and horror, set in Ogden, Kansas. Phillips, a uniquely talented writer, combines satire and genre-bending fiction like the great Charles Willeford. 'Cottonwood' is a Western like no other.
Valdez Is Coming: Local constable Bob Valdez, one in a long line of Leonard's ordinary men pushed too far, goes after the rich and powerful rancher who tricked him into shooting an innocent black suspect. I reread 'Valdez Is Coming' when I'm looking for inspiration and simply to see how it's done. There is not a wasted word here. In fact, in terms of craft, I often describe this as a perfect novel.
In the Rogue Blood: The story of the Little Brothers, who escape a murderous father and embark on a bloody adventure that will take them through Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico, and leave them incinerated in the mouth of Hell. Blake channels the Cormac McCarthy of 'Blood Meridian' and comes up with a stunning piece of work. A graphically violent novel of serious intent that rises to the level of its ambition.
Desperadoes: The story of the Dalton Gang, as told by Emmett Dalton, written with flair and control by Ron Hanson. A literaryapproach to a Western that comes as close to a Ford/Peckinpah synthesis as can be hoped for on the written page. Hanson also penned The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an equally fine book. I give the nod to 'Desperadoes' because of its unexpectedly moving finale.
Hell at the Breech: A Novel: The telling of the Mitchum Beat War, detailing the rise and fall of a vigilante group in post-Civil War Alabama and those who were sucked into its deadly pull. Men, horses, and guns and the battle between good and evil make this an honorary Western despite the fact that is set in the South. I came to this on the recommendation of novelist Dennis Lehane, and it is one of the most memorable books I have read in the last few years. Tom Franklin is a terrific writer.
Rereleased as Ride With the Devil to coincide with the Ang Lee movie it was the source for: A coming of age novel set in a Civil War of extreme brutality, involving bushwackers and Jayhawkers, and culminating in Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Kansas. The protagonist, young Jake Roedel, commits acts of violence that constantly challenge the reader to accept him. Woodrell, one of America's finest novelists, forces us to look at the true nature of war and ultimately at ourselves. An anarchic, important novel.
Deadwood: Wild Bill Hickock and his friend Charley Utter ride through the Black Hills, into the town of Deadwood. One lives to tell the story, and one does not. Revisionist like Berger's 'Little Big Man,' but a completely original creation, this is an uproarious trip into the West, with dead-on dialogue and, most notably, legendary characters made completely human by the extraordinarily talented Pete Dexter. Hickock, Utter, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, Agnes Lake, Al Swearingen, and others come gloriously to life in the pages of this book.
Billy Gashade: An American Epic: Here Loren Estleman recounts the life and journey of Billy Gashade, wandering musician and balladeer, who comes across the likes of Frank and Jesse James, George Armstrong Custer, Billy the Kid, and others in his travels. Lyrical and unusual, this book is a testament to Mr. Estleman's prolific talent and attention to craft. A keeper for anyone's top-shelf Western collection.