It has been twenty-three years since a slim novel published by M. Evans and Company introduced a half-broken former lawman turned bounty hunter named Leo Guild. He appeared in four titles. The first, Guild, appeared in 1987 and the last, Dark Trail, was published in 1990. Guild was Ed Gorman’s first published western, and it is different than much of what the genre has to offer, but it can still be planted, somewhat askew and off-balance, into the definition of a traditional western. There is a hero, a damsel, and villain.
While the major tropes of the traditional western are honored in the four Leo Guild novels Mr Gorman also seamlessly alters, much like an alchemist, the stories with an undertow of hardboiled noir. There is nothing simple. The characters are less, or more, than they first appear. The landscape envelope’s and defines the characters with its harsh yet gentle embrace. And Leo Guild is an enigma. He is seemingly simple, but he is anything but. He is jaded, cynical, but with an understated and powerful sense of hope. A hope that far outweighs the cynicism and despair that nibbles at both him and the tales he inhabits.
The four novels have a range of both theme and content. The first two titles, particularly the second, Death Ground, have the feel of a literary Spaghetti western and the final two titles focus less on the action of the plot and more on the consequences of that action. Dark Trail’s theme is similar to the classic film High Noon. Guild, like High Noon’s Marshal Will Kane, is fighting a solitary battle that no one else will join. The major difference is the exact nature of the battle; both are born from the character’s past, but Guild’s obligation is much less direct—it comes from outside his own actions—while Kane’s is directly linked to his past life as town Marshal.
While the novels differ thematically they are linked by a powerful and stark style that is reminiscent of the crime novels written in the 1950s and 60s. This hard-bitten prose dominates the story and creates the atmosphere as much, probably more so, than either the setting or plot. It matches the gritty, sorrow-filled protagonist, but also allows for a hint of beauty with a poetic sense of the world and the people who inhabit it. It is hard and real, but also, sometimes simultaneously, surreal and haunting. A few lines from Guild show both the stark hardboiled sensibility aligned with poetic realism.
“They tried him for it back in ’86, in a red brick courthouse just outside of Yankton.”
“St. Mary’s sat in a copse of pines on the southwest edge of town, just up from a beef kill that left the stench of blood on the air.”
“So they sat next to each other on the straw tick and looked around at the dungeonlike cells and the maze of iron bars and smelled the urine and stale food and loneliness.”
The Leo Guild novels are something special. The stories are powerfully plotted and executed much like a suspense or mystery novel and the setting is rendered with a gentle and realistic touch. But the true power is in the characters that roam the pages. To quote an earlier review I wrote for Death Ground:
“Guild is an example of what makes Ed Gorman’s fiction so damn good: characters that are measured and three-dimensional; characters that act, feel and sound real. His male characters are strong and pitiful, lustful and scared, vain and dangerous, lonely and weak—generally all at the same time—and more importantly they are recognizable. And his female characters exhibit the same steady qualities. Neither wholly good nor bad, just human.”
The Leo Guild novels are really that good. They are an enigma of both strength and weakness painted on a canvas that projects the power of the modern western and its continued ability to be both poignant and relevant. While also showcasing the often painful and sometimes joyful human experience as seen through the eyes of the working class. All in all these novels are damn good.
Dorchester Publishing, under its Leisure imprint, is reprinting all four of the Leo Guild novels. Guild and Death Ground were released in 2009 and are currently available. Dark Trail is scheduled to be released in November 2010, and Blood Game is scheduled for release in 2011. Dorchester is releasing the final two novels out of order, but it won't detract from the reading experience one bit.