Saturday, August 23, 2014
Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.
“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”
Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.
His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.
Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”
Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”
He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”
(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers)