I read a western a few months ago titled Vengeance Valley by Richard Wheeler. It is a mining camp story about a prospector named Hard Luck Yancey. It is a quiet story of perseverance, love and ultimately triumph. It won the 2005 Western Writer’s of America Spur Award for best paperback original.
And no one read it! The sales numbers were terrible, which got me to thinking—and on this subject I am less than original and far from expert—about why such a sweet and charming novel would do so poorly.
First let’s start with the title: Vengeance Valley. This is an obvious throwback to the heyday of the western. Those old Ace Doubles, Gold Medal and Signet originals (all of which I love) that portrayed the west as a palace of helpless women, bad men and loner heroes. Unfortunately in this case the title is so misleading that if that were the type of book you wanted, you would be angry that it never took shape. There is no valley in the story—the town of Yancey, where the novel is set, is literally on the side of steep mountain ridge. And as for vengeance? Nope. None. Maybe there is a touch of poetic justice when Hard Luck Yancey earns back his mine, wins the girl and saves the town, but not much in the way of six-gun vengeance here.
Now the cover. There is a duded-up gunman with six-shooters in hand getting ready to exact a bit of vigilante justice on the bad guys. When I got about halfway through this novel it dawned on me that I had yet read about a gun—any gun, let alone a six-shooter—so in fun I made a count of just how many firearms showed-up in the telling of this story, and there was exactly one: A shotgun that was pointed, but never fired.
The publisher (in this case Pinnacle) marketed this book for failure. It narrowed the audience to a group of about five guys in Arkansas (Bill Clinton not among them) by the title and cover art, when it easily could have found a much wider audience. There is much in Vengenace Valley to admire: there is a tender and beautiful love story; a very basic good versus evil strain; great characters; greed and innocence. This is a novel that could easily be enjoyed by both men and women, so why is it marketed as an action novel for men?
Why do the major publishing houses insist on marketing westerns like it is still 1955? Vengeance Valley is but one example of how publishers are active participants in the decline of the genre through incompetence, neglect, or outright literary snobbery. I guess the old saying is true: You truly can’t judge a book by its cover. Maybe those romance novels with bare-chested Fabios aren’t so bad either—well, maybe?