Old-Fashioned Western

Jane Candia Coleman excels in the lost genre of the Wild West.

Jane Candia Coleman has quietly become one of the leading writers of Western fiction, perhaps even surpassing such notables as her husband Glenn Boyer.

From Doc Holliday's Woman and I, Pearl Hart, novels based on real people, to collections of her short stories like Moving On and Country Music to novels such as The O'Keefe Empire and Lost River (her latest effort), the award-winning Coleman (Western Heritage Award, Spur Award) has consistently delivered the characters, plots and meticulous research that place her at the top of a genre that has too often slipped into banality.

Not bad for a lady from Pittsburgh who plays the harpsichord and has only lived in the West since 1986. She and her husband now reside in Tucson after spending many years in Rodeo, N.M. As a novelist team, they are a fascinating study in mutual respect and support and have done much to preserve a genre that has seen better days.

Lost River is a worthy addition. Set at the beginning of the last century, it clearly tells us that the "Wild West" didn't end with Francis Jackson Turner's definition of the end of the frontier in 1890. (Movie buffs--think Joe Kidd and Big Jake, or maybe The Ballad of Cable Hogue.) Too many Westerns are crammed into that brief period between the Civil War and Turner's mystic date.

It is also one of Coleman's darker stories. Widowed photographer Sidra Givens is hired to work on a major archeological dig sponsored by a Smithsonian-type Ph.D. near the river the local town is named for. She rides into a mean and vicious New Mexico community dominated by a land baron who owns the sheriff and the judge, and who murders anyone who gets in his way. We've seen that character before in a variety of Western settings, but Coleman's is exceptionally nasty, making the Ed Asner character in El Dorado positively benign--and Don Vito Corleone a philanthropist.

That character gets even meaner when his only child is murdered in retaliation, which gives the story another layer of whodunnit--added to the mystery of the body of a dead woman found with another body of a small child nearby. Today's mean and scary streets were yesterday's mean and scary open country, and Coleman describes it well through Sidra, her main character. The principal suspect in the daughter's murder is the 10-year-old son of a couple murdered by the boss' gang being hidden by Sidra and searched for by the murderers of his parents.

Coleman populates the area around Lost River with a variety of characters who, in the hands of a less able writer, would appear to be the typical finds in a Western: the spunky orphan, the bitter old homesteaders, the flashy hired guns. But she's able to give them a dimension often missing from the genre. Even murderers aren't ALL bad. And the Texas Ranger background of the principal bad ass will make some fans of that outfit cringe.

But there's much more to Lost River than the ongoing violence. Mystery fans will find the two Coleman includes difficult to solve. Photography buffs will find descriptions of contemporary cameras and film-processing fun; those with an interest in archeology will identify with the early dig descriptions; and gun nuts will appreciate Coleman's knowledge of contemporary calibers and firearms. The descriptions of horse handling are something else too often absent from the average Western. Too many treat the livestock like stuffed animals akin to those phony saguaros in old "B" movies.

Anyone who's ever spent any time outdoors in the West will recognize that Coleman is for real. You don't describe a desert sunset, the positioning of an ocotillo, or dawn in a wild canyon in the manner she does unless you've actually been there.

There's another quality to Coleman. The Western genre from the spaghetti movies on lost a fundamental quality that contributed to its decline. Westerns from Zane Grey and Hoppy onward were morality plays. They were often hokey, but they maintained the difference between good guys and bad guys. Despite the multi-dimensions of her characters, Coleman still has those old-fashioned values whose decline turned off much of the Western's core audience and readership.

Black hats, white ones and a few in the middle. Coleman knows the difference. And she presents them superbly.