“Lady Gunsmith” by J.R. Roberts (2017)
This is the first in a new series of Western novels about Roxy Doyle, a young girl with a troubled childhood who grows up to be a fearless gunfighter. It’s written by Robert J. Randisi, one of the most prolific writers alive today. Lady Gunsmith evokes some of the classic Westerns like Jack Schaefer’s Shane and Charles Portis’ True Grit, but only faintly. It also does something else that I’ve never encountered before.
And I do like Westerns. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s when Westerns were king. They filled the media of the time – movies, books, comics, men’s adventure magazines, radio and TV. In 1959 alone, there were twenty-six prime-time Westerns on TV.
The West shows up in my own DNA as well. My grandfather worked as a cow-poke in the 1920s. My grandmother traveled westward to Oregon from the American Dustbowl in the early 1900’s. She actually told us it was by wagon train. Her favorite Western stories came from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.
But Lady Gunsmith is definitely not your grandmother’s Western.
It is an “adult Western,” and the first one I’ve ever read. I’ve come to learn that adult westerns have faster action, more violence, and less description than classic Westerns. And more sex. Adult Western paperbacks are a form of erotica, analogous to the Spicy Western pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, but aimed at a new generation.
The publisher’s description on Amazon sets the stage for this kind of story:
Lady Gunsmith is an adult western series that will recall the series that were predominant in the 80’s and what made them popular—strong characters, no political correctness, all adventure and bawdiness. This time, the series stars a hot, sexy woman who has a ferocious sexual appetite and is unmatched with a gun.
The 80’s mentioned in the description are not the 1880’s, when so many Westerns were set. They are the 1980’s, when adult Western paperbacks were at their peak as a publishing phenomenon. They began in the Vietnam-inflected atmosphere of the 1970s, when the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. American soldiers had committed the My Lai Massacre. America was discovering that the naïve certainties of the 1950s didn’t prevent these horrors.
In the seventies, the great sixties Spaghetti Westerns were still popular, and offered in-your-face gunfights, torture and blood. The seventies also gave birth to their own violent and explicit film genres, such as kung-fu, Cosa Nostra, Blaxploitation, revenge, grindhouse horror and mainstream porn. The seventies must have been the perfect time for adult Westerns to take off. They kept going too. By the mid-eighties, most paperback publishing houses offered one or more series.
And I remember seeing them back in the day. I was in the U.S. Army in the seventies and the National Guard in the eighties. In my spare time I would read philosophy and British spy novels. But my fellow soldiers were carrying around paperbacks called Slocum, Longarm, and Renegade, which were some of the earliest adult Westerns. My buddies were also reading the remarkable Gunsmith series, another one written by Robert Randisi (about whom more later). All these books could be found on-post at the PX and off-post at local drug stores and newsstands.
Lady Gunsmith‘s Roxy Doyle is a character I came to root for in the first few pages. She survives abuse and becomes a feared gunfighter who travels the country in search of her father.
Her life hasn’t been easy.
In 1866, Roxy’s mother was killed by a Sioux arrow while the family was migrating on a wagon train westward toward Utah. Roxy was 11 years old. Her father departed, looking for work, and left her with a Mormon family. He sent money, but after several years the money stopped. Roxy’s foster father and foster brother began to sexually abuse her. So she left. She began to practice shooting a pistol, and rode off to find her father.
By the time Roxy reaches age 20, her wanderings bring her into contact with Clint Adams, the famous Gunsmith (from Randisi’s series mentioned above). Clint teaches her the advanced arts of shooting. He customizes a fast-draw pistol for her, and encourages her strength and self-esteem. One day Roxy and the Gunsmith are forced to defend themselves in a saloon, outdrawing three killers. The local newspapers catch on, and give her the moniker “Lady Gunsmith.”
Roxy eventually parts ways with the Gunsmith, and rides across the West looking for her father. Now in her mid-twenties, she has become a passionate red-haired beauty. Wherever she goes, men ogle and leer, threaten and challenge. She has sexual liaisons, but her gun is never out of reach, so any intimacy is always on her terms.
While Roxy is in Arizona, one man, Jed Harlow, tells her that he actually saw her father killed in Ellsworth, Kansas. Seeking verification, she rides halfway across the country to Ellsworth. No one there knows anything about her father’s supposed death, so Roxy concludes that Harlow was lying. So she vows to look for Harlow as well as her father.
When Roxy arrives in Coffeyville, Kansas, she hears that Harlow is somewhere in the area with Jesse James. She also meets Belle Starr, the famous outlaw and Jesse James associate. Belle and Roxy recognize each other as kindred spirits, self-sufficient women making their way in a man’s cruel world. Belle knows about the Lady Gunsmith and needs her firepower in the Starr gang. The gang’s planning to head to Missouri and pull a string of bank jobs.
While Roxy and Belle are negotiating this business deal, Roxy waits for Jesse James to ride into town with Jed Harlow. Harlow had lied about her father, sending her on a wild goose chase for information about his death. She can’t wait to face Harlow again and settle the score.
Roxy gets her wish. The finale had me cheering for her, and made me want to start book #2 right away. Like all good series, Lady Gunsmith gives me the feeling of having found a new friend. I’m curious to see where she goes, what she does and who she meets. Will she ever find her father? Will she run across the Gunsmith again? I like Roxy’s growing confidence, quiet wit, and kick-ass attitude towards drunken, violent men. The erotic passages are hot. Some are even romantic and touching, but the story stands on its own without them.
Roxanne Louise Doyle is only in her mid-twenties, and if the series does well, she’ll have lots of adventures ahead of her. She knows that she’s been damaged by her childhood, but she’s healing. She’s cautious and wary, not bitter or resentful. She doesn’t hate men, but she lets them know they’d better mind their manners around her. She’s surviving in the lawless, dangerous West, and without depending on anyone else. She’s creating an aura of respect around herself. I can imagine her character developing in many ways over time.
So far, Roxy is the classic strong, silent type who likes her peace and quiet. She’s almost an introvert. One day in Coffeyville, she looks for a place to enjoy a cold beer without male innuendoes or interference. She finds a lonely saloon where not even the bartender seems interested.
“Beer,” she said.
She looked around and say that every table was empty.
“How long will it stay like this?” she asked, as he set the beer in front of her.
He sighed. “Most of the day.”
“Suits me.” She picked up the mug and headed for a table.
“Glad it suits somebody,” he said, behind her.
In addition to getting life lessons from the Gunsmith, Roxy receives wisdom tips from Belle, her senior by a few years. Roxy notices that wherever Belle goes, she’s confident and fearless.
They’re all afraid of you,” Roxy observed.
“It’s a man’s world, Roxy,” Belle said. “If we wanna get by, we have to make men afraid of us. Believe me, and they’re afraid of you too.”
“They don’t even know who I am.”
“I’m sure they do,” Belle said. “You stand out. I knew who you were right away. And even if they don’t, they recognize you for what you are.”
“And what’s that?” Roxy asked.
“Dangerous,” Belle said. “You and me, we’re dangerous, and men know that.”
Earlier I mentioned Randisi’s Gunsmith series, featuring Clint Adams, the man who becomes Roxy’s mentor in this book. I haven’t read any of Clint’s own Gunsmith entries yet, but I plan to. According to my research for this review, Gunsmith is extraordinary in the world of adult Westerns. It’s one of the longest-running series, having begun in 1982. Of the early AW series, it may be the only one still being written. Slocum, Longarm and the others enjoyed by my Army buddies have all been discontinued.
I’ve read comments from Randisi stating that Gunsmith’s longevity comes partly from the fact that it was created and written by Randisi himself. In fact, since 1982 he has written over 400 Gunsmiths!! The other well-known early AW series were publisher’s creations. Their bylines, such as Slocum’s “Jake Logan” and Longarm’s “Tabor Evans,” were house names – placeholders for many different writers, none of whom owned the rights to the series. This difference has given Randisi the opportunity to care for his series and move it to different publishers when the need arose.
Robert Randisi himself is a phenomenon in the world of genre publishing, and an inspiration to several generations of writers. According to a recent interview, he’s written over 640 novels, including the Gunsmith books. Counting all the copies of all the installments, there are 15 million Gunsmith books in print. In 1980’s Randisi wrote twenty books a year, and in 1984, twenty-seven books. He has used sixteen pseudonyms. And he’s still going strong.
Actually, Randisi’s favorite genre isn’t Westerns but private-eye crime novels, along the lines of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Joseph Hansen. In 1981 Randisi founded the Private Eye Writers of America, as well as its annual literary prize, the Shamus Awards. With Ed Gorman, he also founded Mystery Scene Magazine.
I first crossed paths with Robert Randisi in the early 1980s. He was writing novels and supporting the professional activities of writers, and I was writing articles in magazines and journals. I recently became re-acquainted with him in a Facebook group, and am delighted to have the chance to review Lady Gunsmith.
(Thanks to James Reasoner, another prolific Western fictioneer, for help with background information. I want to read a lot of his books too.)