I broke both of my arms in a bad accident a few years ago. Part of my recovery involved having my rebuilt right arm strapped into a nasty device from the Tower of London collection that bent and extended my arm for hours each day. During that time, I watched hundreds of hours of Gunsmoke reruns and was surprised by how much I enjoyed following stoic, leather-skinned Marshal Matt Dillon bring order, and sometimes justice, to lawless Dodge City.
Matt Dillon truly lessened my pain. There’s just something about westerns, about the simple concept and mythic characters of Gunsmoke in particular, that’s inherently compelling and deeply satisfying. I wondered what it was, and if I could capture it in a crime novel. So I studied the show and scores of classic western movies.
I discovered that it’s a lot more than just giving a guy a Stetson, a badge, and a gun.
A western puts a man in a lawless, unforgiving, brutal frontier, where he must somehow survive by living off the land, his wits, and his own rigid code. It’s that last bit, I think, that is the core of it all: a personal code of conduct that’s constantly, relentlessly, put to the test.
A true western character ultimately prevails against adversity because of a stubborn, unwavering faith in his own convictions and the righteousness of his cause, a determination to see the world shaped the way he wants it to be, rather than let himself be shaped by it. He doesn’t try to explain or justify himself because it’s pointless. His actions speak for him.
And as iconic and old-fashioned as that all may be, it’s so refreshing in a world where everyone, particularly heroes in crime fiction, are so self-aware and self-obsessed, so eager to accept the moral, ethical, professional, legal ambiguities in a situation rather than take a principled stand something, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to everyone else.
That led me to write King City, and to create Sgt. Tom Wade, a man of principle, whose values may be laudable but whose maddening, unwavering loyalty to them costs him almost everything and everyone that he cares about. He’s not out on the western frontier, but exiled to the worst part a once great industrial city, where he is out-numbered and out-gunned, and must enforce the law on little more than sheer strength of will.
Viewing the tropes and clichés of a modern crime novel through the prism of a western gave me a fresh perspective on the genre that made the book a pleasure to write and, I hope, for you to read.