Westward ho! The cowboy novel rides again

I may have spotted a new trend in historical fiction. Well, not exactly new, a revival of an old genre is more accurate. I’ve just finished reading Matthew Harffy’s brilliant Dark Frontier, which hopefully is the first of many in this series. So, is the Western about to make a comeback in histfic circles? I reckon so.

I love Westerns. I’ve loved reading them ever since I was a teenager. The satisfyingly clear lines between good and evil, White Hats against Black, the lantern-jawed gunslinger defending the feisty girl in gingham against the greedy cattle baron. But I thought they were all gone, plumb tuckered out, consigned to the trashcan of publishing, never to be recycled. But, dang my britches, if Harffy hasn’t been and gone and breathed fresh life this long-ignored genre with the best Western I’ve read in years. 

Dark Frontier introduces Gabriel Stokes, an English veteran of the 19th-century wars in Afghanistan and also, conveniently given that this is a murder mystery, an ex-cop from the Metropolitan Police. He is haunted by the crimes of Jack the Ripper and flees London (and his failed marriage and drink/drug habits) to breathe the clean mountain air of 1890s Oregon. However, his friend is murdered and Stokes sets about tracking down the killer in the midst of a vicious war between cattlemen and sheepherders. 

In a gripping and convincing homage to the works of Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurty, Harffy manages to create an original hero with a heart of gold, who also wields pistol and sabre like the ruthless Victorian soldier he is, and at the same time stay true to the spirit of the Old West. You can smell the bitter coffee brewing on the campfire, hear harsh bark of black-powder Colts, the clattering of mustang hooves over rocky ground, and imagine falling asleep to the eldritch music of the coyotes high in the Blue Mountains.

Bravo! This is the best goddamn adventure novel I have read all year – in any genre. And I hope there are plenty more to come, not only from Harffy but from my other colleagues in the histfic world. Fashions in literature go in cycles, and I would not be at all surprised if this was the beginning of a new wave of cowboy lit. I’m even tempted to have a go myself at writing a Western, when I get a spare minute or two.

Dark Frontier will be out in July but you can preorder it here from Amazon. And if you can’t wait for July, might I humbly suggest one of my own novels to kill the time. King of the North, my latest Viking saga, is available here, or if you prefer something a little shorter: try my eBook episodic Arthurian series, which begins with Episode One: Arthur’s Bane. (I’m writing Episode Four just now, which will be out next week.)

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