Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ghost Town by Ed Gorman (Western noir)

Author Ed Gorman's Western novels are primarily in the genre he calls "Western noir." In many ways — just about every way except the setting — Ghost Town is more like typical crime fiction than other, more traditional Westerns.

Prison-educated trial lawyer (and sometime thief and con artist) Bryce Lamont is keen to find his old partners Jed Wylie and Frank Stodla. Especially since they still owe him his cut from the job that put him away. He's tracked them down to the midwestern town of Wyatt, Wisconsin, where Jed and Frank appear to have gone legit as a banker and his handyman (though enforcer is more like it).

Unfortunately, a really bad malaria epidemic has hit Wylie, and Bryce's brother Paul has a particularly bad case of it, though Bryce refuses to believe it until he hears it from Laura, Paul's heretofore unmet fiancée and the local doctor. She is the only woman of dignity in a town of iniquity.

Bryce gets the money but loses his brother and sets out to find the ones responsible for Paul's death with only the help of a 15-year-old wannabe bounty hunter and a snake-oil salesman. Threaded throughout — and somehow tying in with all this — is the trial of one Jenny Rice, accused of murdering her own fiancée.

Gorman's Western novels are the perfect stepping stone for the crime-fiction enthusiast wanting to get his or her feet wet in the Western genre. Ghost Town doesn't shy away from the painful parts of life, covering unrequited love, the pain of loss, the suffering of sickness, and the anxiety of hiding from justice, among others.

Ed Gorman is one of my favorite Western writers. His works are largely influenced by the Gold Medal novels of the 1950s and '60s. Donald E. Westlake (to whom Ghost Town is dedicated) pointed out similarities to the Westerns of Will Charles (crime author Charles Willeford writing under a pseudonym), stories that Gorman had not read.

Willeford and Gorman approached their material in the same way, namely that criminals are the same no matter what time period they're living in. That's Western noir. What Gorman is doing with the Western that may not be new, but it's still a fresh approach that hasn't been done to death. He did not create the concept of Western noir, but he gave it a name, and he is certainly the best at it.

Further reading:
Vendetta by Ed Gorman — another Western noir, a multilayered story of revenge.
The Midnight Room by Ed Gorman — his own "Gold Medal novel" dedicated to "old friends who were masters of the form": Peter Rabe, Stephen Marlowe, William Campbell Gault, and Robert Colby.
The Hombre from Sonora by Will Charles — one of Charles Willeford's pseudonymous Westerns.

1 comment:

David Cranmer said...

I would enjoy this and its been duly noted. I'm reading Mr. Gorman's THE END OF IT ALL and its a marvelous collection of short stories.

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