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Carlton Stowers’s western, Comanche Trail, was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Stephen Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction in 2015. He has twice won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar for Best Fact Crime Book.
Five Star Publishing
Hardcover, 978-1-43228333084, 265 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Carlton Stowers
Back in what some call the Golden Age of western fiction, readers were generally provided a simple and high-speed plot featuring good battling evil, a damsel in need of saving, and plenty of gun play. Now and then there would be an Indian raid, cattle rustling, a slow-moving wagon train, or a beleaguered farmer and his family to stretch the story. The formula worked time and time again for the celebrated likes of Luke Short, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour as they told their popular Old West tales, worrying little about anything aside from the nonstop action they were cranking out.
My dad, a devotee of the genre, aptly referred to them as “shoot-em-ups,” and along with him there was a healthy and widespread market for titles like Blood on the Moon and Gunman’s Chance.
Todays’ western is a different breed. The action remains and the plots haven’t changed dramatically, but the quest for authenticity has given the genre a long-needed boost up the literary pecking order. Modern-day Texas authors like Larry McMurtry and Jeff Guinn and the late Elmer Kelton and Benjamin Capps have enjoyed success by adding extensive research and far less make-believe to their storytelling. The Old West they describe is more as it really was, often based on actual events.
Add Spur Award–winning novelist Patrick Dearen to that list. His Dead Man’s Boot is a fascinating, well-spun turn-of-the-century tale that results from research for his lengthy list of non-fiction books dealing with the history of far West Texas and the old cowboys who worked its ranchlands. His combining of fiction and fact serves as a prime example of what today’s best westerns have become.
Dearen notes that the idea for the novel resulted from reading a 1870s account of a horseman discovering a half-buried boot, serving as a makeshift grave marker, on the banks of the Pecos River. The author simply inserted a fictional map to a Guadalupe Mountains gold mine (inspired by the legend of the lost Sublett Mine) into the boot, and his story was off and running.
The plot and characters are what fans of the genre embrace: Clay Anderson, devastated by the death of his sister, sets out on a vengeful journey in search of her psychotic killer. Along the way he encounters and saves abused young Lil Casneres from a Comanche raid, becomes friends with a troubled preacher-turned-cowhand, and meets a no-foolishness owner of the Bar W Ranch who can’t understand his son’s aspiration to one day be a writer rather than take over the operation of the family business. And, yes, there’s a chase, filled with danger and high drama.
Aside from the author’s storytelling gift, what sets Dead Man’s Boot apart is Dearen’s lyrical description of the geography upon which his story plays out, particularly the mountain range where there is gold, a mysterious Skeleton Cave, haunting Apache legends, and ample amounts of thoughtful soul-searching by the troubled protagonist.
Dearen has indeed done the western novel proud.
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The author of twenty-three books, Patrick Dearen is a former award-winning reporter for two West Texas newspapers. Dearen has produced nonfiction books such as A Cowboy of the Pecos and Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River. His research has led to thirteen novels, including The Big Drift, winner of the Spur Award of Western Writers of America, the Peacemaker Award of Western Fictioneers, the Fiction Book of the Year Award from Academy of Western Artists, and the Elmer Kelton Award from West Texas Historical Association. His other novels include When Cowboys Die, The Illegal Man, Perseverance, and To Hell or the Pecos. Dearen lives in Midland, Texas, and has backpacked the Guadalupe Mountains extensively.
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