Death at Dark Water is my fifteenth traditional western novel. It was published in February 2008 by Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). Although it shares some of the features of my other westerns, such as an emphasis on character, landscape, and prose style or language use, it is unlike all of my other works in its initial conception.
My inspiration for this novel came from a story line I became familiar with in my studies in Spanish and Latin American literature and in the culture of Mexico. The story line begins with a stage play named La Malquerida (1913), written by the Nobel Prize-winning author Jacinto Benavente and set in rural Spain. This play was made into a Broadway play entitled The Passion Flower (1920) and into a Mexican film entitled La Malquerida (1949). The title of the Broadway play is not anywhere near a close translation, as “la malquerida” means the ill-loved or wrongly loved woman. I took special interest in the Mexican film, which features the famous Dolores Del Río and Pedro Armendáriz. It is very stylized and melodramatic, and it has wonderful action scenes on the hacienda and in the cantina. I thought that in setting, the movie was a kindred spirit of the western, and I thought that the story line had universal interest. The lustful obsession of a stepfather for his stepdaughter seemed to me as old as the Greeks, and it worked effectively in its transformation from a stage play set in rural Spain to an action film set in rural Mexico. I thought that with one more transformation, it could be an intriguing western.
One question that might arise is why a person would want to re-write someone else’s story. Writers do it all the time (or with great frequency), but I usually don’t, so the question certainly came up with me. My answer is that I thought that the stepfather got off too easily in being honored after his death (I read him as a sleaze) and that the stepdaughter was treated a little too much as a tease, as an immature girl who wanted to trifle with the man and compete with her own mother. I thought there was room in the world for a treatment in which abusive men do not get eulogized and a young woman does not get portrayed as a vixen.
The practice of taking a story line from a foreign art work and doing homage to it in a western is a time-honored one, so my editor gave me free rein to try an experiment here. My problem became one of how to frame the story. My editor made it clear that in order for this to be a western, it had to take place in the U.S. and had to have an Anglo protagonist. So I set the story in territorial New Mexico, in what the voice of the novel calls an insular world, where life goes on as if the town of Tinaja (name borrowed from one part of New Mexico and plunked down in another) were still part of the old country. All the characters in the novel (except the protagonist) are Mexicans, Spanish-speaking people who have little sense of being part of the U.S. and who have more affinity with Mexico itself, which they call the Republic (as people in Mexico do). So that was how I got a method for making the story line into a western. I sent my protagonist into this remote area and got him embroiled in the family problem of a stepfather who is jealous of his stepdaughter’s suitors.
I wrote the novel from the point of view of the protagonist, Devon Frost, so I had the unity that a single point of view gives a novel. It also limited the reader’s access to scenes entailing other characters by themselves, which is a limitation not imposed on the stage play or the film. I am used to writing a novel entirely from the viewpoint of one character (I have done so twenty times as of this writing), so that part of the technical challenge was one I could handle. However, it also meant that I could not show the stepfather making his sleazy moves or the stepdaughter rebuffing him. I tried instead to show, in scenes with the protagonist present, how people who have been in furtive scenes act in public. That makes for a more subtle dramatization.
While I was at it, I thought I needed to do more with the protagonist than just to use him as an observer, although that in itself is an established technique. I thought I would give this character, Devon Frost, a trajectory or what some people call an arc, in which he goes through a process of character development as a result of being brought into contact with these characters and their problems. So, at the beginning of the novel, Devon is a passive person who is on a quest not only to try to find his artistic vision (he has come to this area to observe and sketch old buildings) but also to improve his own ability to assert himself in the world. This is perhaps a bit subtle for some readers, who might want Devon to defeat the stepfather and win the girl (or in other ways be a more traditional western hero who provides vicarious wish-fulfillment), but I went for the more realistic treatment, in which Devon improves his ability to act and thus rides away at the end of the story more capable than at the beginning.
There were many other considerations that went into the writing of this novel, many of which, again, may not interest some readers. My interest in the Spanish language and my love of the Mexican people and their traditions allowed me, I think, to write this story as if from the inside, so that as I wrote it (especially in the dialogue) I often felt as if I was writing in Spanish and translating into English. I also felt that the décor or scenic details were drawn from my own knowledge base and experience (with the help of photos I took from my favorite abandoned hacienda in the state of Chihuahua), and I felt that my depiction of character was based also on my personal experience. In order to liberate the characters from anything like sources in real life or in other works, I gave the characters names that I thought worked coherently in the world of my novel. Some of the names (Petra, Consuelo, Felipe) also resonate thematically for readers who are interested in language.
As a final note, I thought I might say a word or two about the title of the novel. I named it Death at Dark Water because the ranch where much of the action takes place is called Rancho Agua Prieta, or Dark Water Ranch (explicated in the main part of the novel and reinforced in the final words). Both deaths in the story take place on the ranch, as does the corrupt passion of Don Felipe. Thus the idea of dark water figures into what some readers might call the figurative or metaphorical aspect of the book. As mentioned above, I transplanted the town name of Tinaja (which means a natural water tank), and there is a bit of attention directed toward water troughs as well as toward the artesian pool from which Rancho Agua Prieta takes its name. What the figurative meaning might be is up to the reader to think about or to overlook.
As I said at the beginning, this was an unusual undertaking for me. Having written it, I felt I did an honest job with my materials. Death at Dark Water became more of a thoughtful, meditative novel than a fast-action story, as one might expect given the nature and role of the protagonist. I hope readers enjoy it for what it is. As for the fast-action westerns, I have written one or two of those in the past and have a couple coming up.
Death at Dark Water is available at Amazon.