“Packing Iron” by Steve Hayes
Reviewed by Thomas McNulty
The Western is not dead. I say this with total assurance because I have just read a Western that has rekindled my faith in a genre the critics have attempted to flog to death with their incessant negativism. It’s true the Western has had its high and lows, but this is natural for a genre so fraught with the very essence of the American experience.
The book I’m referring to is Packing Iron by Steve Hayes and it’s published by Robert Hale in London as part of their famed Black Horse Western series. For those unfamiliar with the Black Horse Westerns, they appear monthly and are generally lending library titles with a small print run. They have a devoted and passionate following among readers and writers alike, and in recent years the Internet has made acquiring titles a tad easier. The stable of Black Horse writers include many British, Australian, and American writers (men and woman) devoted to the thrill-a-moment action story that made Louis L’Amour a household name.
These writers are not getting rich; they are writing these books because they love the genre and they love to write. The books all run no more than 45,000 words and are packaged as small hardbacks with classic pulp-style illustrated covers. Certain titles, such as Haunted Pass by Lance Howard, command premium prices from collectors. It’s not uncommon for titles to go out of print within a few weeks because of the high demand and low print run. The stories are all noted for their attention to detail, fast pace and solid action scenes. Some occasionally rise above the traditional, entertaining oater. This brings us to Steve Hayes.
Steve is no rookie; he’s enjoyed a fantastic career as a screenwriter and novelist. Now he’s turned his attention to Westerns. It’s not necessary that you read his previous Western, Gun for Revenge, although that fine book does introduce the central character in Packing Iron. Gabriel Moonlight is one of the more refreshing characters to appear in decades. He is the heart and soul of Packing Iron. A third Gabriel Moonlight novel, A Coffin for Santa Rosa, is forthcoming.
Steve isn’t a writer to waste words. His style is concise but each paragraph is loaded with more description and insight than you’ll find anywhere. This is a writer that cares about his story. Caring is a rare commodity among writers these days. While Packing Iron fulfills its obligation to be a traditional Western on one hand, on the other it’s unconventional simply because it’s so good.
With Packing Iron part of Gabriel Moonlight’s history is told in flashback, but Hayes is more concerned about Gabriel’s immediate plight. Wounded in a shootout, he is rescued by a young girl named Raven and her mother, a young widow named Ingrid Bjorkman. Raven is not your usual teenage girl. She had rescued a black stallion from an injury and hand-fed it water until the horse recovered.
Raven has a knack for handling horses. She’s also impetuous and highly intelligent. The heart of Packing Iron involves Gabriel’s growing fondness for Raven and her mother. His slow recovery from a near fatal wound offers him plenty of time to get to know them. But Gabriel has unfinished business, and there are men hunting him. To say more about the plot would be an injustice to the author. I leave it to inquisitive readers to discover Gabriel’s story on their own.
What distinguishes Packing Iron from other Westerns is the emotional investment Hayes offers his readers. As the story builds, it became impossible for me not to care about Raven and Gabriel. I soon forgot this book was even a Western. Naturally, Steve Hayes doesn’t let his readers down. Those requiring gunplay will find it, but the real heart of Packing Iron are the splendid characters.
In his introduction to his 1921 novel, To the Last Man, Zane Grey wrote: “Romance is another name for idealism; and I contend that life without ideals is not worth living.” I recalled those words as I read Packing Iron because Gabriel Moonlight lives by his own code of honor. Moonlight is the literary descendent of Zane Grey’s Lassiter from Riders of the Purple Sage or Buck Duane from The Lone Star Ranger.
It’s this attention to detail and, again, this compassion that Steve Hayes infuses into his narrative that elevates the book above the usual fare. Hayes has written a novel that outshines anything you’ll find among Dorchester Publishing’s monthly offerings, and Signet hasn’t published a notable Western in decades. The New York publishers have lost the footrace when it comes to Westerns, but the Brits at Robert Hale Publishers have kept it alive. Novels like Packing Iron are precisely why the Black Horse Westerns are prized by collectors.
I was fortunate to read an advance copy of Packing Iron. Hayes is a superb storyteller, with masterful pacing and plotting, strong characters, and swift action; his novels belong on a shelf with Louis L’Amour and Jack Schaefer. Given that the demand for Black Horse Westerns is growing, I suspect copies of Packing Iron will be scarcer than hen’s teeth upon publication. I recommend ordering it the moment it’s available, either through Robert Hale’s website or at Amazon.com (UK).
No, the Western isn’t dead. It’s in the hands of Steve Hayes and Robert Hale Publishers, and may they ride a long and fruitful trail for all of us to follow.