Book: Death Rides a Black Horse, by Lewis B. Patten
Cover: A 1970s looking cover painting by an unknown artist that is generic enough to fit about any western you could name
Back Cover: A very 1970s font giving relatively accurate (not the usual mis-leading) plot summaries
Plot: Frank Halliday’s father dies shortly before his 16th birthday. Frank will fully inherit the ranch when he turns 21. If he dies before then, the ranch becomes the property of ranch foreman Rafe Joslin. After a couple attempts on his life, Frank flees the ranch with Rafe on his trail. Mayhem ensues.
Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:
My father’s name was Walter Halliday. He was against of a man who had carved the Halliday Ranch out of Wyoming grassland when no one else wanted it or, indeed, even dared cross it without and escort of cavalry. That was in sixty-five, the year after the Sand Creek Massacre. For several years afterward the Cheyennes rampaged across the high plains, killing, raiding, exacting revenge for the unprovoked slaughter. Twice, my father and mother and Rafe Joslin forted up inside the sod shack that was their first dwelling and fought off raiding parties.
The first-person narrative in a Western is by definition an impossible hurdle for a writer to overcome. It comes down to a matter of voice-authenticity. There is absolutely no way to write convincingly with anything approaching an authentic 19th-Century Western voice and at the same time make a modern narrative-form work.
The result of trying to do the impossible is predictably dis-satisfying. Hence, I usually avoid all Westerns written in the first person.
While Death Rides a Black Horse suffers from all the expected pitfalls of the first-person form, I am glad that I did make an exception to my usual rule, and gave it a try. It is an enjoyable page-turner, if not a satisfying one.
I have reviewed a number of Patten’s books here, including the second novella in this two novella collection, The Ruthless Range. This is by far the weakest. Patten’s Noir-Western style just cannot work with the first-person narrative form when the protagonist is a 16-year-old boy.
Some Random Final Thoughts
Whenever I come across a book by a writer written in a form that they do not usually use, I always wonder: why did they move away from a form that they have already had success in? Was it suggested by an editor? A publisher? Were they looking to stretch themselves? Were they “bored” with their usual way of writing?
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single “successful” narrative-form experiment by a writer whose usual style I like. Can you?