Book Review: .44 by H.A. DeRosso

44_DeRossoIf you grow up in the West and and do not like westerns, it is the same as if you grew up in Belgium and do not like beer. At the very least, you have proven yourself to be someone who cannot be trusted.

The status that westerns have in American culture is much diminished these days. Great westerns are still being written – see Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Elmer Kelton. But the greatest practioners of the classic western are long gone.

H.A. DeRosso wrote hard-boiled stories for the pulps in the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote a number of great western short-stories and a few novels. His westerns have been described by Bill Pronzini as western noir. Pronzini has edited a number of collections of his short stories. Each collection is great.

Of DeRosso’s novels, .44 is my favorite. It epitomizes DeRosso’s style: austere, hard-boiled, grim, lonely and yet,… poetic at times. The characters have an archetypal quality that transcends the merely conventional. The desert  landscape they inhabit is mythological– ethereal and bleak.

There are, admittedly, more realistic western writers and much more historically accurate ones. And yet with the possible exception of Cormac McCarthy there are no western writers that are as satisfying as DeRosso in the end.

DeRosso is satisfying because his work is so mythic. Westerns, after all, are suppose to be mythic. To quote Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

.44 begins with one of those great first paragraphs that hook you and then lives up to all that first paragraph promises. Everything that is classic DeRosso, that is western noir is here: menace, fate, and myth.

The two riders working up the mountain towards the pass travelled about a mile apart. There was not hurry in their progress. The first rider made no effort to quicken his horse’s pace and thus draw farther ahead. The second rider, too, seemed content with the rate he was travelling. He kept his distance, not trying at all to overtake the other, even though he had been hired to kill this first rider and intended to do so before nightfall.

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