Cowboys and Cozies

by Sheila Connolly

I had this weird brainstorm the other day: television westerns in the 1950s were actually cozies! It could be because I’ve been reading one of Craig Johnson’s books, As the Crow Flies (which he signed for me when he was Guest of HonorCrime Bake panel at last year’s New England Crime Bake. I was even on a panel with him, which was a thrill.) He writes about a Wyoming sheriff, Walt Longmire, and I think he’s a worthy successor to Tony Hillerman, in terms of capturing the spirit of the west and its citizens.

Many of us grew up watching westerns on television. In case you’re not quite old enough to remember, that was about all there was to watch in those days (apart from The Mickey Mouse Club and roller derbies). Warner Brothers cranked them out regularly, and of course there was Wagon Train and Gunsmoke (question: did Wagon Train ever arrive anywhere? Or was it some existential endless quest?) Or the darker Have Gun, Will Travel, which for some reason my eight-year-old friends and I loved, a fact that has always mystified me, because that was a show with some subtlety and nuance, and a slightly ambiguous lead character (Richard Boone, aka Paladin).

Sheila as cowgirl 1955
Too bad you can’t see the boots–they were red..

The premise of most of these series was simple: you had this good guy at the center (the one with the white hat), who was pretty much a loner (few girlfriends, and if he ever had one, she got killed off quickly, á la Bonanza), but he had a circle of quirky friends–think Chester on Gunsmoke, or the Andy Devine role on Wild Bill Hickok (a totally irrelevant aside: Wild Bill Hickok was played by Guy Madison, who married Sheila Connolly—no relation—who I think is still alive and living on Cape Cod). The Good Guy also had a mission: to pursue evil-doers and seek justice, whether or not he was a designated officer of the law. Even if he was officially not quite squeaky clean (bounty hunter Steve McQueen on Wanted: Dead or Alive, for example), he still pursued justice, week after week—and won.

Sheila as Indian 1954
I didn’t discriminate–here I am as an Indian. The moccasins were pink.

Wow—now I realize how I spent my youth. I seem to have watched every western there was. Worse, I remember them all, and can probably sing the theme songs.

But my school friends and I took it another step: we re-enacted these episodes, or made up our own, on the playground (we had a generous recess in those days). The wimpy kids we didn’t like much got to play the wife and stay home and tend to the ranch. We fantasized, we put ourselves into the drama—and we had to wrap up the plot in the half-hour we had outside. Or end with “to be continued…”

Who knew that was training for a writer?

Some people complain that cozy mysteries are predictable and written by formula. It is true: they follow a pattern—but it’s a pattern that people enjoy. And there’s nothing new or surprising about that. If I tried really hard, I could probably come up with some examples of medieval literature that follow the same pattern. Is Wagon Train a revised Canterbury Tales?

The thing of it is, ordinary people like to know what they’re going to get when they pick up a new book. They like to believe that it’s possible to right wrongs, to save the day, even if it’s only on paper. It makes them feel good. They may all pick up the “serious” or “important” books on occasion, or the ones that everyone has been talking about, but they come home to the cozies.

And I think that’s what we took away from all those westerns, where the good guy always won. Sure, there was violence (all those guns!), but seldom did anyone die—they were always carefully shot in the fleshy part of the shoulder, and only because they deserved it (well, except for all those wives on Bonanza…).

Those of us who write cozies are the latest generation of a long line of storytellers, and we give people what they want. The line of succession made a stop in The Wild West, and now it’s meandering through a succession of food shops and farms and craft stores—but the moral is the same: the good gals win.

Oh, right, I published a book last month, An Early Wake. This one’s not set in the Old West, but it is set in what the Irish call “The Wild West” in Cork, and the people there always thought they were a bit above the (British) law. It was a New York Times and a Barnes and Noble paperback bestseller the week it was released.

Cover final

17 Thoughts

  1. Loved those old western’s…Guy Madison was what they would call today – a hottie!

  2. Hi Sheila, there was also “the Cisco Kid (and Pancho), and Hoppalong Cassidy (my step dad’s cousin was the producer). I got my first pair of boots for my seventh birthday.

  3. Your childhood was similar to mine. I’m glad you explained why I love cozies so much including your apple and Irish series.

  4. Oh, yes. And Gene Autry. (Never quite understood Sky King–substituting a plane for a trusty horse?) I suppose I could have gone literary and mentioned Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza–but I didn’t know about them at the time. Or Frodo and Sam. Funny that the friends end up doing a lot of the work, isn’t it?

  5. Great analogy, Sheila. We’re definitely showing our age that we remember all those old westerns. I liked The Roy Rogers Show because Dale Evans had more than an occasional walk-on role. You mention that cozies have a formula. If we break the formula, say have the killer get away, etc., then we would end up with unhappy, unsatisfied readers. Justice must prevail!

  6. Sheila, you mentioned on Facebook that you were confused by Roy Rogers, et al, owning horses and cars and phones. Which made me realize that my favorite Western-type shows were all the ones that took place in current-to-the-50’s time period: Spin & Marty, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, and Sky King. There were way fewer shoot-’em-up scenes in those shows (so much more like cozies), and I could see myself hanging out with those cute boys, or riding shotgun in Nelliebelle the Jeep. Or even helping to crop dust in Sky King.

    But I also had crushes on the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, the Cisco Kid (who my mother took me to see when he came to Hamilton, OH once), Hopalong Cassidy, and Rin Tin Tin. Then later, Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, Broken Arrow, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, The Rifleman, Stoney Burke, Maverick (my all-time fave!), and I guess you could put Zorro into the same category. Never got into Bonanza, for some reason.

    1. Wow, we lived parallel lives! I loved Maverick too (but preferred James Garner–I was thrilled when my father once rode on a commercial plane with him, although he didn’t get an autograph or anything). The old folks used to watch Bonanza after Sunday dinner. (I favored Adam, who got fed up and left.)

  7. My dad (uncles, grandfather, great-grandfather) were all cowboys, so we were a Bonanza/Wagon Train/The Virginian-watching family. Wagon Train as Canterbury Tales–what a fabulous concept. My favorites were High Chaparral and Big Valley. Blue and Heath–I had such crushes on them!

  8. There is nothing new under the sun, right? You just proved that the elements of the books I like today were around before the genre took off in it’s present form.

    But you are completely right about writers giving readers what they love, the comfortable and familiar. I know how the book will end even if I don’t know who done it before I pick it up. And I love that. I read/watch TV to escape from reality. I like a world where right wins over wrong and our heroes live happily ever after. That was the problem I thought I was going to have with Wicked, which is why I was so happy when it reached the end.

    Must admit, I missed those Westerns you talked about. I didn’t start watching much TV until I left college in the late 90’s.

    Another example is the popularity of Murder, She Wrote. It’s what I point to as an example of cozies when I’m trying to explain the genre to those who aren’t familiar with it. It’s the same thing, the familiar every week. And I love it!

    Ramblings again, aren’t I? Guess I’d better head to work.

  9. Oh my stars, the cowgirl outfit. I had one too when I was 5. Vest and Skirt. Brown and White plastic leather. With fringe.

    And it’s still in a box in my basement.

  10. This brings back so many memories. We also watched all the westerns too….one tv and my dad loved them. I loved Heath on The Big Valley (Lee Majors). I had a red cowboy hat like Sheila’s also. I think Sheila is right, and it’s why I love cozies so much…the good guys always win!

  11. Great post, Sheila. I have to admit I wasn’t a big Western fan growing up, but am loving Longmire. And love how you tie them to cozies!

  12. Watched them all! Favorites Big Valley, The Rifleman, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Lone Ranger. Loved Barbara Stanwyck – so strong! Mom & Dad watched Gunsmoke & since we only had 1 TV so did I. I had the cowgirl outfit with chaps – real ones. My grandfather had a ranch in Oklahoma. Still love cowboy boots & a cowboy hat!! Houston Rodeo going on now!

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