Justice at Redwillow is my twenty-third western/frontier novel and my fourth with Five Star in its hardcover frontier line. It was published in August of 2015.
I began working on ideas for this story line in 2011, but I struggled quite a bit with some of the elements. I think some of my uncertainties may have come from my status, as this was the period between the time when Dorchester ended its western line and the time when Five Star began its frontier line. As mentioned in other commentaries, I had begun working with an agent, but the various commercial publishing companies were wary of taking on new writers, and some of them had a rather narrow idea of what kinds of stories they wanted. I came to appreciate Dorchester, who, in spite of wanting things to be recognizable traditional westerns, was willing to accept stories that were a bit atypical and varied.
Now I felt self-conscious, and I worried about some of the lurid content I had thought up for this novel. So I worked and re-worked this story line, shipped some of the elements to other story ideas, and came around to something that I thought I could carry through. I developed my workable story plan in the first half of 2012 and wrote the novel during the summer.
One influence that helped was having a setting. In 2011, my wife and I had bought a forty-acre parcel of grassland about an hour north of where we live, in the presence of the Rawhide Buttes. Later that year, I collaborated with an independent builder with whom I have done other construction projects, and we built a sixteen-by-twenty-four foot utility shed which I have used as a cabin. The property has a great location, with views in every direction, solitude, silence, beautiful sunsets, and a stunning night sky. I had not used the place for the setting of a story yet, so I made good use of it now.
I wanted to write a story about a man who wants to make a new start in life. He buys an abandoned homestead from an old man he works with, and after a season of bone gathering, he goes to the property to settle. Once he is there, he makes friends with a neighboring homesteader and gets to know some hard-nosed riders who work for a man who is buying up land from anyone he can take it from. Before long, the protagonist, Jim Fontaine, becomes caught up in having to solve the murder of a saloon girl, the girlfriend of his friendly neighbor, who in turn gets set up for the murder. Fontaine feels that he has to help clear his friend and to find justice for the girl who was killed.
As he proceeds, he also has to solve the disappearance, a few years earlier, of a big-breasted madam who walked with a limp. He tracks down the woman’s former companion, a hardcase himself, and prevails upon the tough guy to come to Redwillow. Complications continue, and Fontaine is left to have to resolve the case himself in a showdown with the land baron’s thugs.
One unifying idea in this story is
about people starting over. The protagonist,
the old bone hunter he buys the homestead from, the heroine, and (perversely)
the antagonist all try to start over in their lives. The heroine’s sister, the saloon girl who
dies, doesn’t get a chance.
Another unifying idea is about justice itself. This story, like many of my westerns, has a strong element of mystery. I do not tend to write whodunits but rather stories in which the reader has to ponder why people do the things they do and what the connections are between unexplained events. In my reading about the writing of mysteries, I have come across the idea more than once that how a person writes mystery stories expresses his attitude toward crime. As I have carried out the development of various mystery stories, I have discovered that that generality is true. Time and again, I come back to the idea that people who commit crimes against other people, most often crimes that denigrate the victim or come from a sense of privilege on the part of the perpetrator, should be exposed and punished. I feel a need to dramatize my belief that people in comfortable or superior positions should not get away with their crimes because of their higher status or because of the lower status of the victims. Often in my stories, there is an old crime that has to come to light in order for the connections to be made and the set of wrongs to be righted. So the perpetrator has gotten away with one or more crimes for a while, but in the ideal world of the story, the truth rises up from its hiding place (not without contested effort), and justice prevails.
I do not think I am a heavy-handed, moralistic writer. But I find it necessary, in the vicarious wish-fulfillment of the world of fiction, to assert a code or a set of values. I know it is idealistic. I try to temper it with realism and with flawed, imperfect characters. I know some of the material I deal with because the settings and experiences of my own life have not been perfect. But I write from my convictions, and I write outcomes that are superior to what often happens in many of our lives, but they are outcomes of fairness and justice that we can believe in and hope for.
Justice at Redwillow is available at Amazon.