Why I like Westerns

I enjoy reading Westerns. In fact, when I have the opportunity (or make the opportunity) to read for pleasure, it’s often to either a British mystery or a Western. In particular, I’m fond of Louis L’Amour. I blame this in part on the uncle that introduced me to L’Amour when I was a teenager. However, my appreciation of a good, clean Western is deeper than that.

It wouldn’t be worth being a theologian if I didn’t try to dissect ideas that others would simply enjoy. So, I will try to explain why I like Westerns. I think there are at least three reasons.

Three Reasons I Like Westerns

There is an escapist quality to Westerns. They are realistic, but they are set in a time and place remote from where I live. Since I reside in North Carolina, the canyons, deserts, and mountains of L’Amour’s novels allow me to get out of the four walls of my house in the wilderness or the untamed towns of a previous century.

Instead of thinking about the dissertation I should be writing, the work that is waiting, or the current political turmoil, Westerns allow me to witness a life and death struggle without the perils of actually being stampeded, shot, or hanged. Additionally, since the drama tends to be much more exciting than hunting for typos in a manuscript, the stories are more interesting than my daily life.

The second reason I like Westerns is that you can nearly always tell the good guys from the bad guys. Call me a simple, but I don’t like spending a hundred pages of a book trying to figure out if I should be rooting for the protagonist or wishing that the main character would get snuffed out by a vigilante.

No, give me a good, old fashioned white hat, black hat Western where you can honestly like the good guys and dislike the bad guys. L’Amour’s heroes aren’t perfect, which makes them a bit more relatable than some others. However, the bad guys are always selfish, arrogant, dirty, murdering, and dishonest. Some hold this simple dualistic perspective against Westerns, but I think it makes the genre more enjoyable. If I wanted to deal with complex emotions I’d watch a day-time talk show.

The third reason I like Westerns is that the guy nearly always gets the girl. This is where the closet romantic in comes out. Again, there isn’t a lot of drama and introspection about liking and not liking someone. Instead you get attraction, mutual admiration, and sometimes conflict. You know, the usual.

L’Amour’s stories are enjoyable because there is usually a strong female lead to complement the male lead. In a few books, the protagonist is a female. Without demolishing all types, the simplicity of romance in Westerns allows for a clean, healthy, enjoyable romance. In a world that seems to want every romance to be against type, the simplicity matters.

Conclusion

I don’t get a lot of time to read fiction, but I have a decent collection of L’Amour’s stories that I return to now and again. I’ve read some other authors, like Zane Grey, but I’ve never gotten into them. Much like my preference for reading Dorothy L. Sayers over Agatha Christie, I think this comes down to the slightly more complex characterization, while still keeping it light and fluffy.

For me, Westerns are an oasis in an otherwise rocky terrain. They allow me to be a hero without getting saddle sores. They entertain me and expand my world a little without sucking me dry emotionally. This is a good thing, I think.

A Recent Encounter with a Little Belgian Detective

For those of you that enjoy the British mystery series centering on Agatha Christie's famous slueth, this book will be a treat. After twenty-five years of playing the little Belgian detective, David Suchet has gifted his fans with an autobiographical account of his time as Hercule Poirot.

Suchet offers firsthand anecdotes of his experience with fans:

I wanted to just take a little time away from the hustle and bustle of the [filming] unit to collect my thoughts. In full costume, complete with my Homburg and cane, I walked just round the corner in to a peaceful side street to stand on my own and think about what was to come.

Quite suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a little old lady walking slowly towards me on my side of the street, pushing one of those square shopping trolleys with four wheels, clearly on her way home. I did not say anything at all, but when she reached me, she stopped.

'Hello Monsieur Poirot,'  she said, with her head cocked to one side.

For a moment I was at a loss to know what to say. Should I respond as Poirot? Do I respond as David Suchet? What voice should I choose?

I made my decision.

'Bonjour, madame,' I said, sticking firmly to the little Belgian's voice and manners. 

The little old lady smiled, and then a look of uncertainty spread slowly across her face.

'There hasn't been any trouble, has there?' she asked, her voice aquiver. 'I mean, there hasn't been a murder or anything?'

This is one among many entertaining nuggets throughout the book.

More enthralling to the Poirot fan, though, is the information Suchet provides about how he worked to present the character of Hercule Poirot in a manner faithful to Agatha Christie's portrayal. This included learning to walk in a mincing manner by practicing with a penny between his cheeks. Early on in the series, it also included standoffs with the production crew over Poirot's wardrobe, his mannerisms, and his lines.

When he was cast for the part, Suchet had never read a single Christie novel, though he had previously played Chief Inspector Japp across from Peter Ustinov's Poirot in Thirteen at Dinner. This meant that Suchet had to quickly study the quirky Belgian to create a convincing part.

He rapidly read many of the Poirot novels, making careful notes of the detectives behavior so he could model every movement faithfully. An amazing artifact, the handwritten list of ninety-three notes on how to portray the little Belgian are included as appendix to this recent autobiography.

In this, Suchet stands apart from many other actors. His main focus was to play Poirot and make him real. He wanted the audience to see Poirot as Christie had imagined, not as a construction of his own mind. Because of Suchet's faithfulness to the characters, the changes to the story that were made to convert the written word to an on-screen production as not as glaring as some recent movie adaptions of British fiction.

This book is a delight to read. As a fan of both the books and the movies, I enjoyed it thoroughly. There are points where Suchet, in attempting to include all his co-workers, tends to provide too much detail about particular episodes. These passages, however, are not too frequent and can be skimmed, so they do not detract from the quality of the book. This book is neither sentimental twaddle nor salacious gossip, but an interesting and lighthearted read.

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Some shameless commerce:

Poirot and Me
$10.81
By David Suchet

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it. However, I was not required to review this book positively. The opinions expressed above are my own.