To understand what a Modern Western is, you must first realize what it is not. It is not historical. Gone is the setting that forms such a powerful foundation for both the Classic Western and the New Western novels. This setting is usually the American frontier period after the Civil War and before the western territories all became states: call it the 1880s. The Modern Western has a new setting of the twentieth or twenty-first century American west. This is the southwest of illegal border crossings and drug smuggling from Mexico. It is also the upper west of armed white supremacist strongholds. This contemporary setting is often just as lawless as in the old days, but far less guided by a strong moral compass.
The Modern Western is usually set in one or more of the following states: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Unlike in the cultivated fields of the American Midwest or the God-fearing towns of the Deep South or the tiny but densely populated regions of New England and the east coast, these places are deserts made up of wide-open spaces and lonely highways. There are secret border crossings, desperate bank robberies, and drug cartel massacres that continue to happen beyond the reach of the law. Often the state cops, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Administration are deeply corrupt and engaged in massive cover-ups of their own wrong-doing.
No more frontier setting means that the Modern Western must ruthlessly set aside the old themes of realizing one's potential and making the land fit for civilization. Instead, the Modern Western plays with ideas such as the death of the heroic past, the crumbling of society, the increasing evil and ineptitude of the government that is supposed to serve its citizens, and the meaninglessness of it all. Often the main characters recognize the importance of individualism and the need to protect the innocent, but they know they will be mowed down in the attempt by the omnipotent forces of evil. In a Modern Western, the characters are often corrupt and weak, and the on-page violence that they suffer is extreme. It can make for very dark reading.
In Rain Gods by James Lee Burke, the main character Hack Holland is a tough Korean War veteran, who has to be pushing seventy years old. He is also a former Texas Ranger, and I'm talking about the legendary law enforcers and not the baseball team. Of course he is haunted by much angst from his past. He becomes sheriff of a small Texas town near the Mexican border and discovers a mass grave containing bodies of several illegal aliens who were recently killed. Soon afterward, he connects the appearance of a sinister suspect with the abrupt departure of two troubled young people, an Iraqi War veteran and his girlfriend, who might have been involved. The two hapless kids (I won't say innocents because no one in a Modern Western is innocent) run for their lives with the depraved killer tracking them. It is up to Sheriff Holland to try and save them even while he is all too aware of his weaknesses and his sense of having lived past his proper time into a new, alien future.
This is a good example of a Modern Western. I read it nervously because I know that Burke's talent is matched only by his tendency toward on-page violence, and I especially didn't want anything bad to happen to the kids. Fortunately, the storyline went easy on us soft-hearted readers and things seemed to work out for the best. Look on Amazon.com for Rain Gods: A Novel (Hackberry Holland Book 1)
Sign up for the free, weekly Fiction Writing site newsletter to keep up with site content.