The Quick and the Dead

by Louis L’Amour

I was recently wandering a large antique shop in Duluth, perusing their small display of books for sale––including a sizeable collection of Westerns––when it occurred to me that I almost certainly have never read a genre Western. Eager to remedy this deficiency, (who am I to think myself broadly-read otherwise?) I picked up the first one to share the name of a movie I’ve seen, and the author pic on the back sold me.

The Quick and the Dead is about the journey of the McKaskels out West, in search of a better life. Their heavy-loaded wagon, healthy mules, and attractive matriarch, Susanna, attract the attention of a gang of dangerous men who decide to pursue and rob these “greenhorns.” Enter Con Vallian. As fast and accurate with his gun as he’s wily, Vallian may be rough and jaded, but he takes it upon himself to help the McKaskels evade the rustlers and navigate an unforgiving land. But they’re outnumbered; it will take all of their wits to survive the wrath of the killers on one hand and legions of unpredictable Indians lurking within the imposing wilderness on the other.

The Quick and the Dead was more-or-less what I expected going in. It wasn’t a life-altering read by any means, but it was reasonably well-paced and exciting enough, varying the action well between the pursuit by the gang, Con’s sneaky “evening-the-odds” skirmishes alongside this, good old fashioned shoot-outs, and enough muted moments to help us recover enough to properly appreciate the next bits of action.

Con’s reasons for getting involved never fully get explained, which isn’t a problem. I was on board, just assuming he’s “the good guy,” and that was explanation enough for me, but the issue is that the author periodically brings it up, that Con wonders to himself why he’s putting himself in harm’s way to help these people he doesn’t know. This came across as an ineffectual characterization technique, an attempt to better humanize Con, one that never yields much of anything by the end. Perhaps this was enough to make him seem more realistic to some readers, but I’m tempted to say an author needn’t worry about such an exercise especially if they’re not willing to go somewhere with it.

Ultimately, The Quick and the Dead was fine––enjoyable, though perhaps unimpressive. I doubt I’ll run out and grab a huge pile of Westerns to read after finishing this one, but I suspect I’ll check them out periodically in the future, including more by L’Amour. Maybe the trick will be researching a bit and picking up famous, or at least popular, works instead of just grabbing a random book off a rack.