Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 10 recent frontier fiction for 2013

While a chief interest here at BITS continues to be early and mid-century frontier fiction, we also enjoy following recent developments in the genre. Below is a listing in no particular order of ten novels and short story collections that got thumbs up during 2013. (Click through on the titles to the complete reviews.)

This collection of western stories from David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp imprint is a welcome addition of new short fiction to the genre. As followers of his online zine already know, Cranmer has a fine eye and ear for picking writers with a gift for storytelling.

This is a heckuva western novel that more than lives up to its unusual title. Mitten knows the conventions of the genre and then turns them inside out to create a sprawling narrative that ranges all over the state of Colorado. The cast of characters includes working cowboys, the worthy citizens of several Rocky Mountain settlements, and the members of an outlaw gang.

Published in 2001, this novel captures something of the sobering mood of that year. It’s about life and death and choices with unexpected consequences. Not really a story, it’s a character study of a young man emotionally marked by wartime atrocity. A Union soldier, still in his teens, he is witness to a clumsy and ghastly execution by hanging.
Some make a killing while some just get killed in this western mystery set in Leadville, Colorado, during the silver rush of 1879-1880. And the mysteries multiply after the novel’s central character, a saloon owner, finds there’s a body in the frozen mud outside her alley door.

Johnny D. Boggs, Spark on the Prairie
This fine historical novel is a fact-based story set on the Texas frontier in 1871. We know from the start that two Kiowa chiefs have taken part in the brutal killing of seven overland freighters. Army general William Tecumseh Sherman has ordered them tried in civilian court. A pair of court-appointed attorneys, despite virulent public opinion, do their best to get them a fair trial.

Eclipse, published in 2002, tackles the story of the suicide of Meriwether Lewis, only a few short years after the triumphant return of his expedition to the Pacific with Will Clark. As Wheeler notes in a Postscript, his death had long been a mystery, some historians advancing evidence of foul play. As a close associate of Jefferson and the political camp opposed to Aaron Burr, he would have had his enemies.

It takes a while to realize what this new Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger, novel is truly about. Sweazy has a whole lot more on his mind than the unsuspecting reader is likely to notice. Count me among the unsuspecting. I must have been almost three-fourths through it before the pieces began falling together for me.

Tom Rizzo has taken three unsolved mysteries from the 1860s and woven them into a story of espionage and criminality. His central character is an innocent man, just doing his job, who becomes a wanted fugitive.

Prosch has a real gift as a storyteller, whether his Nebraska stories are set in frontier days or the present. He gets inside his characters, so you feel you really know them—and care about them. His West is also peopled with believable villains, elusive, calculating sociopaths who thrive in the wide-open spaces of the “outback.”

James D. Best, The Shopkeeper
This is an old-fashioned western in a way that goes back to the western’s roots. For the closest comparison, I’d offer Francis Lynde’s first novel, The Grafters, which was published in 1905. Both novels tell of a newcomer to the West who gets involved in a political intrigue, where influence is bought and sold, and greed rules the workings of government.

Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons
Detail from "Job Lot Cheap," William Michael Harnett, 1878

Coming up: The year in snapshots


  1. Good list, Ron. I enjoyed Holt County Law too!

  2. Ron, this is a list of some very fine authors I hope to read in 2014. I have only read Loren D. Estleman so far. There is something captivating about frontier fiction that I, as a non-American reader, can't quite put my finger to. I enjoy reading about it.

  3. Thanks Ron! What great company to be in, and an honor to be included.