THE PISTOLEER (1995)
by James Carlos Blake
PORTRAIT OF WES, SERIAL KILLER
I wouldn't really call James Carlos Blake's work forgotten, or even ignored; in fact,it's usually marketed as 'literary fiction' and sold outside the crime sections of bookstores. This novel,though nominally a western, was published in the UK in 1997 by Canongate, a publisher of both fine and eclectic tastes and high standing in literary circles, yet still it sank like a corpse wearing concrete espadrilles. I don't believe any of Blake's other books have been published here, though in the US they've appeared steadily, from imprints like Harper Perennial, eclectic publishers on the literary side of the bookstore divide.
I've written many times about how the crime novel and the western are inextricably linked; Public Enemies, Bryan Burrough's recent study of 1930s robbers, which Michael Mann is filming, made the same point, and Blake works in that territory, making the links evident. His 'Dillinger' novel, Handsome Harry, is excellent, but all his books tend to be set between the turn of the last century, through the Depression, and if you replace horses with Fords and six-guns with tommy guns, you can see clearly the smooth continuity of the genres.
Although Blake’s sympathetic portrait of John Wesley Hardin in The Pistoleer might seem to owe more to various Billy the Kid stories than to modern crime novels, there is another interesting connection, between the modern, serial killer 'heroes' and the outlaw whom death seems to follow around. As in many of Blake's books, the criminal's story begins with abuse in childhood (classically, the outlaw’s usually comes at the hand of legal, rather than parental, authority) and then takes the structure of the road novel as a framework for a series of deaths, the final one usually being his own. And in The Pistoleer Hardin is presented as a prototype version of the serial killer, a sociopath if not a psychopath, who almost needs the death that becomes his stock in trade.
In westerns, killings often make some men more attractive to some women, and again, it is one of Blake's tropes to include the outlaw's women in his stories, and not merely as eye-candy. This too is a major part of the Thirties gangster mystique, and not just for Bonnie and Clyde. In The Pistoleer, Blake uses multiple points of view, and some of the best sequences are those narrated by women. Not only do he show the how ladies love outlaws, those ladies have their own perspective on the phenomenon, a perspective not usually a part of the genre. Sadly for modern writers, serial killers never seem to have that same attraction for women.
This perspective might seem surprising from a writer as superficially hard-boiled as Blake, but in fact he can also become overly romantic; but this novel certainly doesn’t suffer for it,and his other books contain a couple of absolutely devastating endings. Here, the kaleidoscope of narrators give him lots of scope for irony, and provides a panoramic view of the West which few novels have time or scope to attempt, much less deliver. The depth of the story, and the quality of the writing, show why publishers refused to consign Blake to the ghetto, but it's worth moving this book into the western sections. When it came out I compared it to Geoff Aggeler’s Confessions Of Johnny Ringo and Loren Estleman’s Bloody Season as among the best “bad man” novels of the 1990s, and it remains just as good today.