Wednesday, March 22, 2017
A Cowboy, a Space Captain, a Private Investigator, and a Barbarian Walk Into a Bar... [Guest Post]
By GW Thomas
The Cowboy grew out of the nostalgia for a Wild West that never really existed outside the imagination of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. You can see the beginnings of him in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (1820-1850s), but it is Owen Wister who gets credit for the first official Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902). After him come all the rest, from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, along with his near cousin, the Northern hero: Mounties to gold-miners in the fiction of writers like Jack London or Rex Beach. North or West, the trappings of the Western and Northern include the tough, solitary cowpoke who enforces his own stern code with a shooting iron or a hanging rope. Locales where you'll find him include the wilderness and smoky saloons.
The Private Eye was invented by Carroll John Daly in "The False Burton Combs" in Black Mask (December 1922). Daly may have been first, but his work was expanded by Dashiell Hammett, who had actually been a Pinkerton agent, and later by Raymond Chandler, who elevated noir pulp fiction to the highest level. The central hero is, of course, a private detective, who knows the mean streets and follows his own code of justice. This doesn't always match that of the police, who are often as corrupt as the criminals. Mystery tales date back to at least Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murder in the Rue Morgue" (Graham's Magazine, April 1841), but was made hugely popular by British author Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. The Private Eye was America's response to the effete murders in the vicarages over tea that the British cozy mystery was at the turn of the century. None of that middle class snobbery for the PI. He is a creature of independence, often found drinking in an illegal speakeasy.
So why do all these heroes exist, and why America? All of these characters are products of pulp fiction, whether in the early days when they were called weeklies, or in the later, true pulps. Magazine fiction since the 1880s had been driving genre with specialized types of reading. In America, this looked a little different than elsewhere, for North America was a land of pioneers. The sedate, well-established, Oxford-educated type good guy was seen as suspiciously too civilized for a land such as the US. American heroes had to be tough, whether they were in the Yukon or the Arizona desert or in imaginary lands or the quickly growing cities with the new problems of gangsterism and corruption. Only a hard man could walk the line between right and wrong.
These characters all became icons, part of our collective culture along with the jungle lord and lady, the avenging swordsman, the secret agent, and the superhero. Love them or hate them, they all serve the same function: a plot Christopher Booker calls "Overcoming the Monster." The hero takes on the the "Big Bad" and wins, whether that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Beowulf. These heroes tells us we are not small, but can win; that our personal code is worth protecting, that there are reasons to charge "once more unto the breach." The hanging around in bars... well, what else is a hero going to do while waiting for that next adventure?
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.