The Marauders of Pitchfork Pass by Clay Houston Shivers – Western Wednesday Book Review – February 2021

“What’s starting?” I asked. We were standing in the street. The sheriff was pulling out his guns and making sure the bullets he’d put in his guns were still in there. The Calico Kid seemed to have more trust in his bullets staying where he put them because he didn’t bother checking them. – Opening paragraph of Chapter 21 in The Marauders of Pitchfork Pass by Clay Shivers

I received a free Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book through Booksprout in exchange for an honest review.

(I hope to be able to read and review more western genre ARCs, to help with publicity for current western writers. If you know of any on offer, please, let me know!)

I honestly enjoyed this book quite a lot. I smiled a fair amount. I may have even chuckled a few times.

There is a certain amount of grisliness, violence, obscenity and the occasional scatological remark. (It does not feel nearly as grisly as The Sisters Brothers, though, although that may in part be due to tone. This book felt better-natured, if somewhat less polished.) If you are particularly against any of that violence and swearing stuff, you will probably not want to read this work.

For the rest of us though…

The voice of Curly Barnes, the narrator of this story, who begins telling this tall tale as an old man who has managed to get the reader to sit still and listen to him for a change, is a friendly, sometimes somewhat inappropriate and often very amusing voice. The occasional repetitiveness is surely due to his advanced age (and perhaps also his tendency to drink a bit.) The story has fun with poking at some western genre tropes and you might even come across some familiar names from western history. Back in early January when I reviewed the film Tombstone, I mentioned that the Tombstone/Gunfight at the O.K. Corral guys show up a lot in westerns as characters. Well, Johnny Ringo is a supporting character in this novel, and there is passing reference to both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

This novel pokes and winks at the western genre in a friendly, laugh-with instead of laugh-at way, which I appreciated. I could sense, before reading the author’s bio, that he is a fan of westerns. (I am still somewhat unsure of where The Sisters Brother’s guy’s heart lies.) It’s a respectful comedy-adventure. I expect – I hope – it will prove quite popular.

Curly Barnes wants to tell us the story of what happened when the sheriff of the town of Silver Vein, Texas was killed. And then when the sheriff came back to life. The story is set in the mid-ish-18oo’s, and told by Curly in the 1920s.

There have been a few mild eyebrow raises from other reviewers about some of the language used and questions about the language’s period appropriateness, to either the 1920s or the 19th century, but I didn’t mind what might be a few slip ups, as the entire story is more a Tall Tale then Serious Literature anyway. (That’s not meant as an insult. Not everything needs to be heavily literary. Tall tales can be terrific. And what are most westerns but legends, anyway?)

Curly reluctantly plays a part in the fight to take the town back from the hoodlums which have filled the void created by the law’s absence, although he would start off telling you he was just a (directionally-challenged) cowardly saloon keeper.

There is a plot twist just about exactly half way through the story, and also a bit of a tone change.

The first half of this book is quite quite funny, and the second half, while increasingly serious and violent, also retains a sense of humour. I think the humour is the best part of this novel, with the plot really being a bit secondary.

There were a few times when I felt the narrative circling back on itself or the banter between some of the characters was slightly over-drawn, and it began to get perhaps just a little too long (but I am very much a “when it’s over it’s over” type reader who very rarely digs epilogues.)

I also felt that the author was trying a little too hard to ensure that the reader would know he has modern sensibilities about the historical treatment of American Indian peoples, and just because he appears to be a white guy writing a western, that doesn’t make him a racist, no-sir-ee-bob, you can tell because his heroes are mostly not really terribly racist, and the leader among the Comanche Nation we meet is wise, (perhaps even veering a bit into “magical Native American” territory.)

There is rather a lot of taking of scalps. Mostly by the Texas Rangers characters.

There are a few women characters, a harridan and a woman of somewhat-ill-repute, but they are quite secondary. I did wish for a little bit more from the harridan, who is often to be seen armed to the teeth and is at one point described as “part woman, part hellfire.”

Over all I was very pleased with this book, and entertained. It is a fun tall tale that is not to be taken too seriously. I look forward to reading more from this author, who I believe is debuting into fiction with this title. It is a great debut, and I’m pleased to have been introduced to this writer early in what I suspect could become a quite successful fiction-writing career!

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