By David Healey
The setting and the landscape are as much of a character in Larry D. Sweazy’s new novel, A THOUSAND FALLING CROWS, as is his protagonist, former Texas Ranger Sonny Burton. After losing an arm and retiring as a result of his run-in with bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, Sonny is just as down and out as Depression-era Texas with its Dust Bowl storms and hard times.
Fortunately for Sonny (and the reader), it’s a case of once a lawman, always a lawman. He finds himself drawn into the search for a Mexican immigrant’s missing daughter. Wallowing in self-pity, the case brings him back to life. It also sets in motion a fascinating journey through 1930s Texas.
As to why he chose to write a western, Sweazy, a Western Writers of America Spur Award winner, said, “There’s a romance to westerns that’s universal. It’s the American genre. It’s the self reliance, it’s the journey, it’s the characters shaped by the landscape.”
He also sees a natural connection between westerns and crime ficition. “They are mostly morality tales. They ease right into crime fiction.”
He recalled an era when kids grew up watching westerns on black-and-white TVs. For that generation, there remains a certain nostalgia for the genre—but that doesn’t mean westerns can’t win over a new generation of readers.
While the American West was a unique time and place, who knows that there won’t be a new frontier someday to capture imaginations all over again? I think it could happen again.” Sweazy points out that Gene Rodenberry envisioned Star Trek as Wagon Train in space.
Until then, readers will have the setting of this new novel, which is rich in details, down to the brands of beans eaten by the characters and the operational quirks of a Ford Model A. Even telephones remain a relative novelty in the rural Texas of 1934. There are no radios yet in police cars, so in an emergency, lawmen have to knock at the door of the nearest farmhouse to use the phone. It is a time period vastly different from our own 24/7 connectedness, and yet it is an era that many readers will remember from their own grandparents’ stories.
“I think you ought to get that stuff right,” Sweazy said of the historical details. He describes research as being enjoyable, which may come as no surprise, considering that in his other writing job he handles indexes, ranging from those needed for textbooks to those in technical manuals.
Another research tool he finds invaluable is old photographs of the Dust Bowl era. “I spent a lot of time looking at these pictures and soaking up the details and atmosphere,” he said.
The novel is colored by the history of the Texas Rangers: Sonny’s father goes back to their formation in 1870s to rid Texas of Commanches. That task was accomplished in a few months, Sweazy said, so the Rangers turned their attention to cattle rustlers and bad guys in general—a fight that continues to this day. In A THOUSAND FALLING CROWS, Sonny’s sense of that earlier era is potent. He remembers when men rode horses out of necessity, even if his steed is now a Ford.
The author’s knowledge of old cars comes courtesy of a childhood spent hanging around garages where relatives tinkered on some of the vehicles described with great accuracy in the novel.
Beyond the historical setting, A THOUSAND FALLING CROWS will engage readers on another level. On nearly every page, the reader encounters tense love-hate relationships. There is Sonny and his son, Jesse, who has taken his father’s place as a Ranger. There is the love triangle of Bonnie and Clyde wannabes Carmen and Eddie and Tio, three characters who play a central role in the novel’s plot. Finally, there is the sometimes-comic relationship between Sonny and his adopted dog, Blue.
Things don’t always end well for the characters.
“I don’t know that I set out to do this, but I started to realize that there’s this underlying Greek tragedy structure touching everyone who walks into the story,” the author said.
As a writer, Sweazy prefers to discover the story as he goes along because it makes the writing more interesting: “I like the surprises along the way.”
The Indiana resident spends about six months writing a book, in between his indexing work.
“I’ve always treated novel-writing as a job. I sit down at my desk. I usually write in the morning, take a break to walk the dogs, and then do whatever indexing work I have the rest of the day. Usually it’s a pretty full day.”
(The dogs, incidentally, are Rhodesian Ridgebacks, who serve as his writing office companions.)
These days, Sweazy has been particularly busy with fiction. While he said there are no plans for another Sonny Burton book at the moment, his next novel is the second book in the Marjorie Trumaine Mystery series called See Also Deception, expected in May. He is currently writing another standalone mystery, Where I Can See You, set for release in early 2017.
Larry D. Sweazy is the author of See Also Murder, Vengeance at Sundown, The Gila Wars, The Coyote Tracker, The Devil’s Bones, The Cougar’s Prey, The Badger’s Revenge, The Scorpion Trail, and The Rattlesnake Season. He won the WWA Spur award for Best Short Fiction in 2005 and for Best Paperback Original in 2013, and the 2011 and 2012 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western Fiction for the Josiah Wolfe series. He was nominated for a Derringer award in 2007, and was a finalist in the Best Books of Indiana literary competition in 2010, and won in 2011 for The Scorpion Trail. He has published over sixty nonfiction articles and short stories, which have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; The Adventure of the Missing Detective: And 25 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories!; Boys’ Life; Hardboiled; Amazon Shorts, and several other publications and anthologies. He is member of ITW (International Thriller Writers), WWA (Western Writers of America), and WF (Western Fictioneers).