Friday, September 24, 2010

A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler (debut Western novel)

Update: For those who have been waiting, A Congregation of Jackals is now available in an electronic edition, with the trade paperback slated for May 2011.

Author S. Craig Zahler's debut Western novel (he is best known for his film work) opens with a scene that quickly lets readers know what is in store if they continue reading A Congregation of Jackals. In it, a set of swarthy twin outlaws torture a young newlywed couple physically and emotionally just for the fun of it.

Then the story shifts to the main plot: 47-year-old rancher Oswell Danford receives a telegram inviting him to Trailspur for the wedding of one of his old gang, James Lingham, to Beatrice Jeffries, daughter of local sheriff T.W. Jeffries. "All old acquaintances will be in attendance," promises the sender, and this makes Oswell and the other recipients — Dicky Sterling and Oswell's brother Godfrey — very nervous, as it means that the fifth of their Tall Boxer Gang is ready to settle an old score.

A Congregation of Jackals is a mature and thoughtful Western that can stand up alongside anything that Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry have written. At the same time, its unrepentant violence, intensity, and dark worldview could easily appeal to fans of hardboiled crime fiction, as well as current envelope-pushing Western authors like Peter Brandvold, Max McCoy, and J. Lee Butts.

I especially liked Zahler's choice to tell the backstory of Oswell's bank-robbing past through the letters he writes home to his wife during his long journey to Trailspur. Not only is it an improvement over the traditional flashback, but in telling the story through Oswell's own words, it gives the reader a chance to get to know him, and his feelings about his past, before all hell breaks loose.

Because once the wedding starts, the tension is unbreakable, as Oswell, Dicky, and Godfrey guard the church door in preparation for the arrival of Quinlan, their expected but unwanted visitor. Locals and outlanders work together to ensure that nothing will ruin the ceremony. But no one can possibly be prepared for what Quinlan has in store for them and anyone who gets in his way.

Zahler's choices in A Congregation of Jackals are truly surprising. He seems to give Quinlan a free hand, tending toward the brutal realism of a man who has been stewing over a betrayal for decades and is finally ready to make his retribution fantasies reality. None of the characters is safe; anyone could die at any time, so the suspense is always high.

A Congregation of Jackals is a truly modern Western. Zahler takes all the traditional excitement of a narrative of the Old West and injects it with a 21st-century sensibility, giving it a freshness not often seen. In order to survive, the Western genre needs to appeal to newer, younger readers, and Zahler's cinematic style may be just the thing to draw them in.


Gonzalo B said...

Unfortunately, I think this is one of the books that were supposed to be released before Dorchester announced it would focus on e-books. I believe we'll have to wait a while to see this one released as a hard copy.

Craig Clarke said...

You're right. In fact, it's still on Amazon with a release date of August 24, but available for pre-order (?!). This book and Quarry's Ex (in whatever form it eventually shows) are two that will definitely be worth waiting for, though.

Craig Clarke said...

I recently got word from Dorchester that this book will be coming out in trade paperback this coming May. The e-book should be available some time around January.

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