Review and interview
Larry Sweazy’s new Josiah Wolfe novel is equal parts western and murder mystery. Wolfe, as Sweazy fans know, is a Texas Ranger and a good, decent man, at a time when the Texas Rangers were not universally admired among Texans. By this stage of the game (#5 in the series), he is carrying around a good bit of personal history and plenty of complications in his life.
The novel takes place entirely in the bustling capitol of Austin, where Wolfe currently has a home, far from his origins in rural Texas. The single parent of a young son, he is torn by the demands of his profession that keep him from being a full-time father. Grieving the loss of his wife, he has begun a tentative relationship with a young widow.
Plot. A fellow Ranger is wrongly arrested and jailed for the murder of a prostitute, and Wolfe has two days to save him from the gallows. Suspense builds as the clock ticks and Wolfe hunts for the killer, getting or not getting cooperation from various Austin residents and piecing together clues that don’t add up.
Turns out there is not one prisoner but two, and a daring rescue of the second one leads to an outburst of action involving grenades, a fire, and a moving train. The murder is not solved until the last cards are played at a public trial, while the gallows and a crowd wait outside the courthouse to dispose of the man found guilty.
Character. Like other western writers, Sweazy evokes an imagined West that has points of similarity to the modern world. Part of this is due to the urban setting of this novel. Wolfe, in his sleuthing, leaves Austin city limits only briefly. He also has a self-awareness that is recognizably modern.
Wolfe is a troubled hero. He seems particularly affected by self-doubt, regrets, and misgivings. These make him introspective in ways we don’t usually associate with the western hero, though Sweazy’s portrayal of the man is thoroughly believable. They also make Wolfe’s undaunted courage and dedication to what’s right all the more admirable.
|Austin, Texas, 1873|
He can be tender hearted and is still shaken by what he lived through on the Civil War battlefields. As just one example, the disciplining of his young son triggers uncertainties and confusion. He may say he believes in spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child, but like a modern-day father, he worries that it may teach the wrong lessons about the uses of force.
Those moments in the novel make Wolfe not only a three-dimensional character. He wins the sympathy of readers who know the dilemmas of parenthood and thus identify with him. Meanwhile, the minefield that a romantic attachment can quickly turn into is reflected in his courting of the young widow.
Going public with their relationship, they invite the scrutiny of respectable folks in town, and they walk a fine line where chasteness and decorum are expected. Sweazy pushes the envelope in describing the degree of intimacy the two yearn for and achieve only at rare moments.
Storytelling. Sweazy relies on the standard formulation of the murder mystery in telling the story. Wolfe, his point-of-view character, makes the rounds interviewing folks who are likely to have answers to his questions. One of the many pleasures of the novel is the anticipation of his meeting them and the kind of people they turn out to be.
As one example, there’s the madam of a high-end brothel. She is an albino woman, with a sharp business sense, and able to quickly size up a man. Vulnerable, yes, but she will not be intimidated, not even by the sheriff. She knows too much and can leverage what she knows to hold her own in a hostile social environment. In another twist, she also manages the brothel as a kind of women’s shelter.
Dialogue between Wolfe and the secondary characters is often sharp and full of unexpected turns. As Sweazy’s characters talk, they come fully alive on the page. The Texas spring weather plays another role in the story, rapidly changing as the story progresses. Austin itself is a character, often described as being in the throes of feverish modernization, including the destruction of a swath of inner city to make way for a new railroad.
Wrapping up. The Coyote Tracker is a masterful page-turner full of suspense and surprises. It demonstrates the skill that has won Sweazy an appreciative following and numerous awards and recognition. He can be found online at his website. The Coyote Tracker is currently available in both paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.
|Larry D. Sweazy|
Larry has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today to talk about writing and the writing of the Josiah Wolfe novels. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him.
How would you define the “traditional western”?
I think the “traditional western” is still rooted to the origins of the genre. Good against bad in a lawless society, where justice has to be served in the end if there’s a crime (think of the justice in Shane). I always strive to honor those origins, but I like to put my own spin on them with characters that act, and talk, in unexpected ways, but thoroughly, human ways.
In the book, you acknowledge a good many resources related to the Texas Rangers. Who, if any, are the actual historical characters that appear in this story?
Captain Leander McNelly is starting to play a larger role in the Josiah Wolfe books. I think he has appeared in all of them except the first, The Rattlesnake Season. I’ve always been fascinated by McNelly, with how much he accomplished in his life given his health problems. His story still persists because of his strength and fortitude. Governor Coke and General Steele are historical characters that play roles, too.
But probably the most surprising character in this novel that is based on a real person is Blanche Dumont, the high-priced madam. Of course, I took a lot of literary license with her in comparison to real life, but she was a madam in Austin, who was rarely seen, but extremely powerful. I wondered why she was secretive, and my imagination led to me think that maybe she was an albino. I couldn’t find any evidence of it, and since I don’t write strict historical fiction, I went with the idea. I think it added a unique layer to her story.
In writing a series like this with a single continuing character, how does all that back-story affect your writing of the current one?
It’s becomes a little difficult to bring all of the back story forward so a first time reader to the series can grasp the emotional foundation of all of the characters, and so a long-time reader isn’t bored to tears. But that’s the fun of it, too. I try to find circumstances that will naturally evoke the back-story, like in this book, with it taking place entirely in the city. It was easier to reflect on outside incidents that had happened.
In what ways, if any, has the character of Josiah Wolfe evolved for you over time?
Josiah is an amazingly complex character who continues to struggle against right and wrong, when to kill and when not to, and how be a family man when the potential for loss constantly surrounds him.
I think that kind of struggle will continue on as he ages and attains more wisdom and experience. In our time, he’s relatively young, 33, but in his time, when the life expectancy was 55, he’s well into middle age, so there’s that to consider, too.
Do you have any rules of thumb about how much actual history to include in a novel like this one?
I really like to base the a good portion of each book on an actual event. This book was less of that, and more of a mystery, but the coming of the railroad and the boom in the city of Austin was extremely important to me, so I used those events almost as another character.
Did anything about the story or the characters surprise you as you were writing?
Most of the characters were from somewhere else, so there’s not as much regionalism in Austin as one would think. The city was a magnet for emigrants, so each character brought a little different perspective about the city, and to Texas itself, than I anticipated. The West was a big melting pot, but I think the perception of Texas is a little different, like it’s almost like its own country… That continues to surprise me.
Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
Stories almost always evolve for me. I write without an outline, so I rarely know the ending, though in this case, I knew who the bad guy was and why he did what he did from the very beginning.
The details were a surprise, why Abram Randalls was broke out of jail, and who was helping who, but that’s the fun of it. I write to find out what happens next. I hope that translates to the reader.
Is the published version of the novel closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
There are always changes made. I’ve been very fortunate to work with the same editor at Berkley since the middle of book two, The Scorpion Trail. I think the consistency of vision and expectations that Faith Black has held for the series has only made it better, and I’ve been happy to work with her. My agent and first readers have had input, too, but I think, for the most part, revisions have been deep, but not overwhelming.
Talk about how you came to include a romantic sub-plot in the story.
Josiah and Pearl. They’re an odd match. He’s the salt of the earth from rural Texas, and she’s been raised in a well-to-do family that has lost everything, so there’s conflict built in at the very foundations of their relationship.
And with both of them losing a spouse, and middle-aged in their society, there is physical need and desires to contend with, too, in a restrained and proper society. It’s yet to be seen if they live happily ever after, and I think that uncertainty fits both the characters, and the time period just right.
How did you settle on the title for the novel?
I wanted the title to reflect that it was a mystery, but still maintain the feel of the series. Each book has an animal indigenous to Texas, so there had to be some consistency of style. Coyotes are tricksters, and the trackers can be interpreted as sleuths, so The Coyote Tracker came along pretty quickly.
|James Franco, (CC) David Shankbone|
Who, if anyone, would you trust to make a movie of the novel?
Movies and books are apples and oranges. There are some decent westerns being made today, so there are people out there who love and understand the genre. I would want someone who would tell the human story as much as pull the strings of the genre, and someone with an obvious love of westerns.
Is there any screen actor you would like to see play the character of Josiah Wolfe?
I’ve been asked that before, and my answer was James Franco. I can still see him in the role. He can be dark and moody, but light and playful at the same time.
What has been the most interesting response to the Josiah Wolfe series so far?
I get a lot of mail from female readers, and a lot of my male readers want to know what’s going to happen between Josiah and Pearl. And they want me to write faster.
What do you learn from your readers?
That there are loyal fans of westerns out there, hungry for more.
What are you reading now?
I just started reading Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich. It’s the first book in the Ethan Gage series.
|Elmer Kelton (CC) Larry D. Moore|
What writers of the West, living or dead, do you consider undeservedly unknown?
I’m a big Jack Schaefer fan, and Ernest Haycox and Elmer Kelton, too. Unfortunately, most of the living western writers working today are undeservedly unknown. It would be nice if the westerns published today were made more widely available, and put out into the public eye with more marketing force, but that’s not the case.
I send my editor some ideas, always based on events in the book. I’ve been very fortunate for those ideas to be used, and made even better than I could imagine. The designers and artists that Berkley works with are top-notch. I couldn’t be happier with the covers of my books.
You also thank your copy-editor. Talk about how the two of you work together.
Again, I’ve been fortunate to work with Rick Willet since the start of the series. I’ve never met him, so we only communicate per book. I think he has a great feel for what I’m trying to accomplish with the stories and characters, and he offers well-thought-out suggestions and research when I go off track. And I do go off track from time to time.
What can your readers expect from you next?
The next Josiah Wolfe book, The Gila Wars, comes out in May, 2013. Beyond that, I’m not sure yet. Right now I’m still thinking about what comes next myself. I will have published six Josiah Wolfe books in three and a half years, while still working a day job, so a little break is due, I think. But rest assured, there will be something coming along. I can’t sit still for too long.
Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
You know, I feel very fortunate to write in the western genre. It’s got a great history, and is chocked full of good decent people who have given me a leg up on the way. I know how lucky I’ve been, and honestly, writing the Josiah Wolfe books has been the greatest creative adventure of my life. I am beyond thrilled when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed the adventure, too.
Thanks, Larry. Every success with Josiah Wolfe and The Coyote Tracker.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 40