Review and interview
Every good western is a contest between the conventions of the genre and a writer’s resistance to them.It’s a fight to keep the characters and plot from slipping into the well-worn grooves made by others. Like driving a pickup down an old farm road, the trick is to stay out of the ruts without going into the ditch.
The challenge has to be doubly demanding when adding to the franchise created by someone else. The job then is to credibly continue the legacy of one of those bestselling western writers whose names appear larger than the titles on their book covers—in this case, Ralph Compton. It takes an inventive mind and a masterful hand to enliven an old form with new ideas, and Matthew Mayo brings both to the craft of storytelling.
Plot. Dead Man’s Ranch is one of those rare cases of a western that has a title with a direct connection to the story. The death of a man leaves the ownership of his ranch in question, and on that hangs much of the action of the novel. An acquisitive neighbor intends to get the ranch by any legal means possible. His son wants it even if it means breaking the law.
The rancher’s common law wife and her son figure the ranch belongs to them, while the dead man’s first-born son, raised by his mother’s family back East, considers himself the legitimate heir. Add a bloodthirsty villain with nefarious designs of his own, and you have the full contingent of characters all on the same collision course.
You might expect a lot of gunplay with the ranch going to the last man standing, but Mayo has something else up his sleeve. The guns don’t come out until the final showdown, and until then, it’s anyone’s guess how it’s all going to turn out.
|Ranch corrals, Arizona|
Storytelling. I’ll leave it to you to read the book and discover the rest of the plot. What’s interesting is the way Mayo tells his story. Instead of a strong central character who helps to resolve the conflict, the novel shifts focus from one person to another, as tensions mount and they dig themselves deeper into trouble.
You expect the greenhorn, as a stock western character, to step off the train into the middle of this mess, learn the ways of the West, and see that justice is done. That doesn’t happen. Instead he gets sidelined by a bushwhacking that leaves him gut shot and thinking he’s tried to kill someone else.
The sinister villain in the novel is a phantom figure to everyone except us. A kind of Fantômas lurking in plain sight, he dispatches one person after another thinking he’s knifing his way into some money. His name, by the way, is Mort Darturo, a play on the French word mort, meaning “death,” and Le Morte d’Arthur, a medieval romance about King Arthur.
A number of secondary characters cross the pages, including the likable Sheriff Tucker, seen at one point putting a roof on his privy. There’s also a down-at-heels saloon swamper, Squirly Ross, and a black ranch cook called Hiram Bain. Squirly introduces a note of genuine humor when he relates a long tale of being abducted by Apaches. Hiram qualifies as the most decent man of the whole bunch, and he seems destined to wed Esperanza, the proud and resourceful Mexican housekeeper of the dead rancher.
There are other minor characters, the most finely drawn of them being Mitchell Farthing, an aging cowhand who has a fatal encounter with Darturo. In just a few pages, Mayo gives him a colorful personality and a back story that make you more than sad to see him go.
|Ranch house, Montana|
Looking back. Mayo’s novel makes an interesting comparison to westerns of 100 years ago. A central theme of this novel is the parallel stories of three men, each trying to prove himself a man. This is a plot thread to be found over and again in early westerns, which are typically about the building of character.
Here we get the greenhorn fresh from the East, the rancher’s son tired of living in the reflected glory of his old man, and the son of the dead man scorned as a “half breed.” Each struggles to achieve self-respect and to earn the respect of others. The hold that alcohol has on two of them is a complicating factor. In pre-Prohibition fiction, it would also reflect a bias toward temperance to be found in some novels.
A bigger difference between the two eras is the portrayal of a black man. Black cooks are not uncommon in early westerns, but they rarely do more than walk on as perfunctory and often comical characters. If they are allowed to say anything, it will be in the broadly ungrammatical and uneducated accents of the Deep South.
|Ranch barn, Oregon|
By contrast, Mayo’s Hiram speaks fluent, standard English, as do most of his other characters. He possesses intelligence and a calm reserve that is unintimidated by the white family for whom he’s long been employed.
The less likable characters in Mayo’s novel show their ignorance and lack of moral fiber by flaunting their racial prejudice. One hundred years ago, a character’s contempt for Mexicans would not have raised an eyebrow. Following the Mexican-American War, they were considered a conquered race not greatly different from the Indians.
Here it’s another matter. When a character is not duly respectful of Hiram, Esperanza, or her son, they brand themselves as bigots. Some people may complain about the inroads of political correctness, but I’d like to hear them argue that we should go back to the old days.
Wrapping up. Matthew Mayo tells a darn good story. Dead Man’s Ranch is briskly paced and peopled with a large and enjoyable cast of characters. For readers who like a little romance, I can add that the novel ends with a big kiss. This and other books by Mayo, who also writes nonfiction, are currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble in both paper and ebook formats. And there's more about him at his website.
Matthew has generously agreed to spend some time here today to talk about writing and the writing of Dead Man’s Ranch. So I’m turning the rest of the page over to him.
Matt, talk a bit about writing as Ralph Compton, another established author. How does a writer go about doing that?
Other than Ralph Compton’s name on the books, and a few general directives (keep it clean—no overt sex, no unnecessary cursing, etc.), the Compton novels are solely the efforts of the author hired to write them.
I don’t think about Compton’s legacy or the line so much as I try to write the best book I can in the time given. That said, it’s an honor for me to contribute to the Compton line alongside so many writers whose work I’ve long enjoyed.
Would you have written this novel any differently if it were a Matthew Mayo novel?
No, I wouldn’t change much, primarily because I consider my Comptons to be Matthew Mayo novels. And they’re fun—they indulge my fondness for writing involved stories in which characters find themselves in situations they can’t shoot their way out of (but sometimes do!).
How did the idea for Dead Man’s Ranch suggest itself to you?
I was offered the slot, but the deadline was going to be tight, in part because of other book commitments. I don’t like saying no to opportunities, so I scratched my chin, rummaged in my computer, and pulled up an early draft of a novel I’d called Dead Man’s Ranch. The editor liked my synopsis and the title. That draft was roughly 75,000 words, and the Comptons are 80-85k, so I teased it out, rewrote sections, added a subplot, more minor characters and build-up scenes.
Is the published version similar to how you first conceived it or somewhat different?
The published version is better than I first conceived it, largely because I reworked it and rewrote it as I went along. I read somewhere that writing is rewriting, and at least for me, that’s true. If my schedule’s not too tight, I like the luxury of being able to go back over a manuscript until it tightens.
Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
It did—especially since I had already mostly written the first draft. I was able to go back through it, expanding it as I mentioned, and sanding off rough edges. It’s not perfect, but readers seem to like it. I’ve received lots of positive emails about it, and that is gratifying.
Was there anything about the novel that surprised you in the writing of it?
Nothing specific comes to mind with this one (it’s been a while), but in general it’s the things characters say that raise my eyebrows or make me chuckle.
What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
I loved writing Squirly Ross’s scenes, as well as the incident on the trail with his old friend. Those cobby old characters are a pleasure to spend time with. I also enjoyed working up scenes with Mortimer D’Arturo—his backstory was fun to write.
I wanted to show that the West wasn’t populated with seven-foot-tall, square-jawed white men who spoke with drawls and were crack shots. This fellow is a smallish, swarthy Italian who had a lousy childhood, came over on a ship, basically as a slave…. Those are some of the things I enjoy about L’Amour’s books. He wasn’t afraid to lead readers out of the desert or off the ranch once in a while.
Were you thinking of any other writers while writing this one?
When I wrote the first draft, I recall thinking about Ernest Haycox, one of my favorite writers. I don’t remember the novel, but one of his I’d read (maybe more) has lots of comings and goings at a ranch, good and bad people, grey-area folks all defending their actions, right or wrong.
How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
It’s been a few years since I wrote it, but I believe I came up with the title first—thinking it was cool sounding and offered room to dig and expand. Then I wrote the book around it. The title works on a few levels, so it gave me opportunities to explore various layers of intention.
I have no idea. I wasn’t consulted, though when I saw it I thought they did a good job in coming up with a cover that portrays the “lost” son. They did mess up the title—they had it as “Deadman’s”, one word, instead of “Dead Man’s”, two words. When I contacted the editor, he said they’d already corrected it. Frustrating, but I have little say in the matter of covers of the Comptons. That said, I’ve been pleased with what they’ve come up with.
What have been the most interesting reactions to the novel?
A number of people have called it “literary.” They’ll mention certain characters or scenes, too, which is also gratifying.
Your villain likes to drink whiskey in milk. Do you recall where that idea came from?
I thought it would be a funky little quirk. I’ve never tried it—I like whiskey too much to taint it—but since you brought it up, I might just give it a go.
Does Larry Sweazy know that he appears in your novel?
He does now!
Have you ever thought of writing under the name of Cinco D. Mayo?
Ha! No, not that one, but it’s not a bad idea. Hmm….
You have a story in the collection, The Traditional Western. What does the term “traditional western” mean to you?
It means a Western that represents more of a mythic side of the Old West (the old black hats/white hats thing), which I enjoy as a reader and writer. Also, I believe the term “traditional Westerns” only means something to writers and publishers. I don’t believe avid readers of Westerns parse their genre in terms of “traditional” or otherwise. They think “Westerns.”
For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
Hmm, I can mention writers whose work I like and so, probably helps shape my own writing. In no particular order, I enjoy the writing of John D. Nesbitt, Peter Brandvold, Johnny Boggs, Loren Estleman, Joe Lansdale, Larry Sweazy, George Pelecanos, Wayne Dundee, Robert Randisi, James Reasoner, Dusty Richards, Quentin Tarantino, Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Garrison Keillor, Louis L’Amour, Raymond Chandler, Jack Schaefer, Ernest Haycox, Dorothy Johnson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, early Ellery Queen, Robert E. Howard, Harry Crews, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, Donald Hall, Larry Brown, and on and on.
I know I’m forgetting lots of great writers. So many books!
What are you reading now?
I am reading a lot of non-fiction for a book that’s due soon. I’m also reading The Lost City of Z—I’m a sucker for high adventure, real life and fabricated. And I’m dipping into Robert E. Howard’s Almuric, a gift from my brother, Jeff, who’s a huge REH fan.
What can readers expect from you next?
I just had a couple of essays included in a new book about the Red Sox; a story in a new Moonstone Books anthology about The Avenger; a couple more Slocum novels (as by Jake Logan) are coming out soon; I have a book coming out in the fall called Jerks in New England History; and in August, a new Compton—The Hunted.
Lots of short stories, and more stuff coming out from Gritty Press, the imprint my wife, Jennifer, and I run. Gritty Press, by the way, is going to knock people’s socks off. Or at least their shoes!
Since I’m not overly humble, I’ll mention that my recent Compton, Tucker’s Reckoning, was awarded the Spur Award this year for Best Western Short Novel by Western Writers of America. So my wife and I are headed to Vegas in June to attend the convention. We’re looking forward to seeing our WWA chums again.
Thanks again, Ron, for such a thoughtful review and for the invitation to natter on about my writing!
Thanks, Matt. Every success.
Author's photo: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
Author's photo: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
Coming up: Gunfighters (1947)