Monday, October 8, 2007

Saddlebums Review: Vengeance Valley by Richard S. Wheeler

This is a review that appeared on Gravetapping in May of 2006—it is less review and more rant, but Vengeance Valley is a quiet, entertaining, and above average western that anyone should enjoy. It is the type of storytelling that should add readers to the genre and focus the attention of critics less on the old traditions of the western novel and more on what the modern western story can be. If you can find a copy, I recommend Vengeance Valley to everyone.

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?


Chap O'Keefe said...

From what I've read, "Vengeance Valley" wasn't even the author's title. If Pinnacle wanted a new western of the traditional kind, why didn't they look elsewhere rather than the spoil Richard Wheeler's chances of reaching the audience he was writing for?

And if they had wanted to appeal to the traditionalists, wasn't it insulting to offer a title that was such a cliché?

Gonzalo Baeza said...

Mr. Wheeler states in his memoir, An Accidental Novelist, that the title of this novel was changed by the publisher. Luckily, the cliched title didn't manage to conceal the fact that it is a great novel and very deserving of the Spur Award it won. I am working on a feature article that deals with these obsolete marketing practices and how they affect Westerns.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to get a copy of this novel. Sounds great. It is such a shame that it did not get many sales. This is exactly what we have been talking about, on these forums, and on the Black Horse discussion group ... how to "push the boundaries" of the western and make it appeal to a wider audience. The Old West is such a vast area to draw from in writing a novel, with so many interesting stories and characters. This novel sounds like it succeeded in "pushing the boundaries", and was let down by poor marketing. I cant wait to read it, and if it hadnt been for this review, I would never have known about it.


Anonymous said...


I've just looked, and if anyone does want a copy, it is better to go to, even if you live in the Uk. Prices at, start at £5.00 and then go to £30.00 upwards. Much cheaper at


dgb said...

When I reviewed Wheeler's "From Hell to Midnight" at Bookgasm I suspected the same publisher- tampering with the title. News flash for Pinnacle: readers of westerns know who Richard Wheeler is and don't need you fudging the facts; non-western readers are not going to be attracted to something that looks like it was written by Walt Coburn in 1946.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Thanks for this kind commentary. My original title was Hardluck Yancey's Jackpot, which I believe would have sold plenty of copies.

I am hoping Pinnacle will reissue it with its original title.

And yes, From Hell to Midnight also had another title intended to evoke some of the humor in that novel. In spite of the gunmen in cowboy hats on the covers, neither had anything to do with cowboys and little to do with guns. They were frontier mining town stories.

Tracy said...

Even Avalon, a small publisher who continues to put out hardback westerns, has fallen prey to using "stock" western covers, it seems. Such a shame - in the past, they've hired painters who rendered some truly lovely covers that spoke without words about the story.

Good to see you around, Dick!