by Sheila Connolly
I had this weird brainstorm the other day: television westerns in the 1950s were actually cozies! It could be because I’ve been reading one of Craig Johnson’s books, As the Crow Flies (which he signed for me when he was Guest of Honor at last year’s New England Crime Bake. I was even on a panel with him, which was a thrill.) He writes about a Wyoming sheriff, Walt Longmire, and I think he’s a worthy successor to Tony Hillerman, in terms of capturing the spirit of the west and its citizens.
Many of us grew up watching westerns on television. In case you’re not quite old enough to remember, that was about all there was to watch in those days (apart from The Mickey Mouse Club and roller derbies). Warner Brothers cranked them out regularly, and of course there was Wagon Train and Gunsmoke (question: did Wagon Train ever arrive anywhere? Or was it some existential endless quest?) Or the darker Have Gun, Will Travel, which for some reason my eight-year-old friends and I loved, a fact that has always mystified me, because that was a show with some subtlety and nuance, and a slightly ambiguous lead character (Richard Boone, aka Paladin).
The premise of most of these series was simple: you had this good guy at the center (the one with the white hat), who was pretty much a loner (few girlfriends, and if he ever had one, she got killed off quickly, á la Bonanza), but he had a circle of quirky friends–think Chester on Gunsmoke, or the Andy Devine role on Wild Bill Hickok (a totally irrelevant aside: Wild Bill Hickok was played by Guy Madison, who married Sheila Connolly—no relation—who I think is still alive and living on Cape Cod). The Good Guy also had a mission: to pursue evil-doers and seek justice, whether or not he was a designated officer of the law. Even if he was officially not quite squeaky clean (bounty hunter Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive, for example), he still pursued justice, week after week—and won.
Wow—now I realize how I spent my youth. I seem to have watched every western there was. Worse, I remember them all, and can probably sing the theme songs.
But my school friends and I took it another step: we re-enacted these episodes, or made up our own, on the playground (we had a generous recess in those days). The wimpy kids we didn’t like much got to play the wife and stay home and tend to the ranch. We fantasized, we put ourselves into the drama—and we had to wrap up the plot in the half-hour we had outside. Or end with “to be continued…”
Who knew that was training for a writer?
Some people complain that cozy mysteries are predictable and written by formula. It is true: they follow a pattern—but it’s a pattern that people enjoy. And there’s nothing new or surprising about that. If I tried really hard, I could probably come up with some examples of medieval literature that follow the same pattern. Is Wagon Train a revised Canterbury Tales?
The thing of it is, ordinary people like to know what they’re going to get when they pick up a new book. They like to believe that it’s possible to right wrongs, to save the day, even if it’s only on paper. It makes them feel good. They may all pick up the “serious” or “important” books on occasion, or the ones that everyone has been talking about, but they come home to the cozies.
And I think that’s what we took away from all those westerns, where the good guy always won. Sure, there was violence (all those guns!), but seldom did anyone die—they were always carefully shot in the fleshy part of the shoulder, and only because they deserved it (well, except for all those wives on Bonanza…).
Those of us who write cozies are the latest generation of a long line of storytellers, and we give people what they want. The line of succession made a stop in The Wild West, and now it’s meandering through a succession of food shops and farms and craft stores—but the moral is the same: the good gals win.
Oh, right, I published a book last month, An Early Wake. This one’s not set in the Old West, but it is set in what the Irish call “The Wild West” in Cork, and the people there always thought they were a bit above the (British) law. It was a New York Times and a Barnes and Noble paperback bestseller the week it was released.