Monday, January 28, 2013

James D. Best, The Shopkeeper

Review and interview

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.

Both novels are tightly plotted with twists, turns, and surprises aplenty. One of them is Best’s central character himself, Steve Dancy, the shopkeeper of the title. He’s not the usual tenderfoot from the east, the fish out of water you find in Zane Grey. Nor is he the traditional cowboy drifter Louis L’Amour liked.

He’s comfortably well off, having acquired a bankroll through some shrewd investments. He stays at the best hotel in town and eats at the best cafĂ©, where he lingers over meals indulging an appetite for good reading. We find him in the midst of a Melville novel and looking forward to getting a copy of Mark Twain’s new book, Tom Sawyer.

While modern western writers tend to dwell on makes and models of firearms, as if readers were gun show enthusiasts, Dancy has good reason for being a gun expert. Until he left the business, he was a gunsmith. And years of practice have made him a marksman. A few short days after his arrival in a silver mining camp, Pickhandle Gulch, he has eliminated two nasty thugs who’ve been disturbing the peace. And thus the novel’s plot is set in motion.

Shoshone mine and mill complex, Nevada, 1907

Plot. The arch villain of the novel is a rich mine owner, Washburn, who has acquired his wealth by jumping other men’s claims. With his money he’s bought law officers, public officials, and judges, and he’s attempting to install a governor in the next election. He hires a contract killer, Sprague, to wipe out any man who becomes an intractable nuisance. Dancy soon qualifies himself as a target.

Without giving too much away, let it be said that Washburn and Sprague are eventually “neutralized.” But not until after the introduction of several Pinkertons, the buying of a bank, the writing of a forged letter, and the use of a derringer hidden in a woman’s dress. There’s even a demo of how to dress a sage hen.

The plot takes its central characters from dusty Pickhandle Gulch to Carson City. Key scenes take place on the days-long trail between the two settlements. There are stopovers at an Army fort and a ranch, where a young widow and her battleaxe of a mother-in-law are in a fierce contest of wills. And bustling though it may be, Dancy finds the state capital little different from “all the other collections of slapdash buildings that Nevada called towns.”

Nevada Great Basin (CC) Brynn

Style. The story is deftly told in first person. An intelligent and resourceful man, Dancy makes a good teller of his own story. He’s thoroughly reliable as a narrator but doesn’t always let you in on what he’s up to. He may even reveal something important to another character, but you have to wait until matters unfold to find out for yourself.

Clever, that. It intensifies the suspense, which builds steadily as Dancy’s schemes put him in greater danger of being the next name to be crossed off Sprague’s to-do list. A confrontation bristling with malice in a hotel dining room produces a reversal that had me laugh out loud with surprise and relief. That hasn’t happened since I was reading Carol Buchanan’s God’s Thunderbolt, reviewed here a while ago.

Best also grounds the story in history, with occasional references to Nevada’s past. There’s mention of a pony express route through the state and Nevada’s admission to the Union during the Civil War. He casts his Pinkertons as aids to law and order, when they are often portrayed in fiction as hired agents of greedy corporate clients.

While thoroughly professional, Captain McAllen often finds himself at odds with Dancy, who has to keep reminding him that he has hired McAllen, and that makes Dancy the boss. Still, he respects and needs McAllen, and the fine line both men must walk with each other gives their working relationship an added complexity.

Capitol, Carson City (CC) Urban
Romance. Best gives Dancy a curious weakness of character. It does not qualify as a flaw exactly and is more a sign of a human nature that underlies his coolly rational style of problem solving and risk management. Still, the way it clouds his judgment troubles him. Put simply, he has a fatal attraction for the young widow, Jenny.

Part of that attraction is a wish to rescue her from the lecherous clutch of other men. There’s a spark of life in her pretty self that draws him like a moth to the flame. He doesn’t seem to notice that she’s tougher than nails and hardly in need of a helping hand. And he can’t fathom his own impulse to settle down with her in the godforsaken isolation of Nevada’s outback.

Lovers of western romance may be disappointed in the way all this turns out. It comes as no surprise in the end that there is no Jenny in Dancy’s future. She seems happy enough to share the ranch house with another woman, also named Jenny. A thoroughly independent person, she tells him, “I need a friend, not a lover.”

Wrapping up. The Shopkeeper is one heck of a novel. As it ventures into matters of politics, the law, business, and finance, you might call it a thinking reader’s western. Its cast of characters is easy to believe in, and the storytelling is taut and well polished. Complications are neatly and plausibly resolved after many pages of suspenseful tension.

Dancy is the kind of man you’d like to meet and get to know. And it’s good to know that Best has written more novels featuring his well-drawn “shopkeeper.” You can find Best at his website here. His novels and other books are currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. 

James D. Best

James Best has generously agreed to spend some time with us today talking about writing and the writing of the Steve Dancy novels. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

Jim, how did the idea for The Shopkeeper suggest itself to you?
I always liked fish-out-of-water stories. In The Virginian by Owen Wister, the narrator came from the East to provide fresh eyes to tell us about the American frontier. I thought it would be fun if the Easterner was a participant in the story rather than just an observer. At any rate, that is how I came up with the idea for The Shopkeeper. As a nod to The Virginian, the characters play whist as the cowboys did in Wister’s book.

Was the published version similar to how you first conceived it or somewhat different?
The storyline remained as I originally wrote it. The first version was shorter, but a publisher asked me to lengthen it, so I added several new chapters rather than pad the existing story. I tend to write the story first, then do the research. This way the story drives the research instead of research driving the story.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
I start each day by revising what I wrote the prior day. This is the way I put my head back in the story. As a result, when I print the manuscript to edit for plot, clarity, and continuity, I consider it a second draft. I’ll generally continue to make big revisions up to this point. The next step is to give printed copies to three people I trust to give me honest feedback. They give me good story suggestions and fact-check.

Although it’s infrequent, I’ll occasionally make a big plot revision as a result of their readings. This is usually after I stomp around for a couple days in a snit because I refuse to believe they’re right. Once my emotional response recedes, it’s possible for me to take a cold look and make a better decision.

After this step, I believe the manuscript is perfect and send it to a professional editor. Lo and behold, it comes back with metaphorical red ink on every page. As I review each edit, time has provided a fresh perspective, so I sometimes adjust the plot and make other changes. Finally, there is proofreading, which is mostly nip and tuck.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
I wanted a title that was a bit of misdirection. The Shopkeeper sounds innocent and non-standard for a traditional Western. I’m not sure that was a good marketing choice, but it seems to work for people who have committed to reading the book. The character of the protagonist comes across as a surprise.

Was there anything about the story that surprised you in the writing of it?
I think the greatest surprise was Mrs. Bolton. I knew what was going to happen at the ranch house, but I had no idea about her appearance, character, or personality. I literally put myself in the place of my main character and looked at the ranch house to see who was standing on the porch. She turned out to be nasty, vile, amoral, and clever as hell. I loved her. She was a great antagonist.

Virginia City, Nevada, c1867
What sort of research was involved in writing the novel?
As mentioned previously, I write the story first and then do research. After The Shopkeeper was drafted, I took an extended road trip through Nevada that included Candelaria (Pickhandle Gulch), Carson City, and Virginia City. I also traveled the same roads as the characters in the story.

The book was reviewed by a friend who is a bird hunter and gun enthusiast. He was the one who told me how Steve could win the range hen contest. (This episode was supposed to evoke the horseplay and contests of skills portrayed in The Virginian.) Another friend helps with horses. She rides and boards horses and claims they reveal their innermost secrets to her in long conversations. For a later book in the series, she even told me how you would murder a horse if you were a dastardly character.

Talk about the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover.
I wanted the cover to reflect a different kind of Western that was still true to the genre. I also liked the self-confident posture of the cowboy. (The photo is by L. A. Huffman, circa 1880.) The face is cropped out because we didn’t want to preset an image in the reader’s mind.

Opera house, Virginia City,  Nev., 1937
What have been the most interesting reactions to the Steve Dancy tales?
Women like the books and the Steve Dancy character. I received an excellent review from Woman’s Day and the series is popular with female nurses. Also, nearly half of the Amazon customer reviews (89 at this writing) are written by women. I never expected that, especially since one of the antagonists is an especially loathsome woman.

Has Steve Dancy evolved as a character for you?
As the series progressed, he has matured and experience has taught him how to better handle himself on the frontier. The friendship of the three main characters has deepened considerably. Steve’s romantic life has also evolved, but I don’t want to go into that because it’s one of the themes of The Return, the Steve Dancy book I’m working on currently.

You have written on your blog of Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour as creators of the genre. What way has each contributed to your own writing?
This is a difficult question. In the past, I was saturated in Westerns. I’ve read 3-4 books by Grey and Brand, and almost everything L’Amour has written. I also read McMurtry, McCarthy, Leonard, Parker, Boggs, and many others. Since I started writing Westerns, I no longer read in the genre. I’ll read nonfiction about the Old West, but avoid novels because I fear I’ll subconsciously pick up plotlines or characterizations. My memory hasn’t deserted me, so I remember these and other authors’ work, but with a bit of haze that gives me some distance.

I wanted to write something different that was still faithful to the Western genre. My books do not include many cowboys. My Westerners are miners. My protagonist is rich, so he lives differently than most characters in Western stories. I try to add political, business, or technology components to my stories. Similar to the narrator in The Virginian, Dancy is educated in the best Eastern schools and has aspirations to be a writer of Western tales. At the end of The Shopkeeper, Dancy rides off in the opposite direction of the sunset.

Wister, Grey, Brand, and L’Amour wrote about grand themes--themes that go back to colonial times when people abandoned civilization for a new life. Our frontier heritage is integral to our American culture. No matter how my stories may differ from other Western authors, I always hope to stay true to these themes.

Johnny D. Boggs
For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
Larry McMurtry, Robert Parker, and Johnny Boggs: These writers also rely heavily on dialogue for characterization and to move a story forward.

What are you reading now?
I’m finishing up the Girl with The Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I enjoyed the first two, but find tedious The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

What can readers expect from you next?
I’m working on The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale. This is the fourth in the series and I want it to be the best. With a bit of luck, it should be available for Father’s Day.

Many thanks, Jim, and every success.

Image credits:
James D. Best photo, Diane Best
Johnny D. Boggs photo,
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: The Wild Bunch (1969)