Westerns have changed and not changed. Names in Westerns are different. They used to be generic to the point of pointless as in the townspeople all named "Johnson" in Blazing Saddles. Then came Lonesome Dove. Now when there is a Western the names are mundane words piled together into eccentric names. So instead of Deputy Johnson there is Deputy Ruby Tulip Crow.
Racial stereotypes have disappeared from Westerns. That's not to say that racism no longer exists in Westerns but when it is there it's an illustration of the attitudes of the time and/or a plot device. No longer is it an acceptable representation of the popular view.
A Western staple that hasn't changed is the journey from self righteous negativity to rebirth and redemption. The hero or more often the antihero goes from a single-minded, selfish purpose to a more community viewpoint of what is important. The gunslinger who hangs up his six shooter, the cowboy who stands up to the cattle baron, the Native American who abandons his plans for revenge, the whore who sacrifices herself for the sheriff. These are all standard Western characters who routinely undergo some sort of crisis that takes them out side of their own needs and causes them to change their evil ways.
Over the last twenty or thirty years newly published Western novels have become few and far between. The obvious reason why is poor sales but as to why tastes changed and sales slumped? I don't know. In larger bookstores you occasionally still see a Western Section but it's very small and usually made up of reissues and a couple series that have new titles monthly. Nothing to match other genres like Mystery, Romance and Science Fiction. So it is something of a very pleasant surprise when one of the major publishing house in the U.S. puts out a new Western in hardcover. The publisher is HarperCollins ecco and the book is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.
The Sisters brothers are Charlie, the older and Eli. They are young but experienced, brutal, hired guns. Right now they work for the Commodore. Who exactly the Commodore is and what his agenda might be are unknown but he pays the bills so he's the boss. Henry Morris, another employee of the Commodores' gives the Sisters their orders. The Commodore wants them to kill Hermann Kermit Warm whose last known address was San Francisco. The trip from Oregon City to San Francisco and beyond will be a long one filled with saloons, women, mines, frontier towns, trappers, schemes, friends and foes that all wraps up with a realization and a twist.
Charlie and Eli are well made creations. At the start of the novel their actions define them but as deWitt takes them on their journey to find and kill Hermann Warm deWitt leisurely draws out their personalities. The conversation and the rivalry between the siblings is sometimes funny, sometimes frightening but always realistic.
Patrick deWitt has used his research well. He makes it a part of the story without allowing it to bury the story or characters. His 1850's California is a harsh and dangerous day to day experience and every man's potential goldmine. A place where a small weakness can be a death sentence or an unexpected second chance. Although there is a great deal of action in the novel, Eli's matter of fact manner of narration keeps the story from feeling like one long continuous stunt.
Who knows maybe The Sisters Brothers will start a resurgence in Western novels. It's certainly good enough to do just that.
P.S. How much do you love that cover?