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Saddle Up—These Western Mystery Books Will Take You For a Ride

You'll have a hog-killin' time.

cow skull sitting on a guardrail on the side of a foggy mountain road
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  • Photo Credit: Cristhian Hernandez / Unsplash

Wild or not, the West can be a tricky place. From reservation politics to cattle ranch tensions, the region is rife with conflict. And where there's conflict, there's bound to be intrigue.

So much more than shiny sheriff pins and the familiar “spaghetti western” flute motif from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, mystery westerns are such good reads because they’re riddled with drama that makes for unexpected twists, isolated settings that make for both fantastic jump scares and folk elements alike, and also typically feature top-notch detective work from a brooding yet charming mustached sheriff. 

It’s a subgenre that includes other subgenres, like mystery romance, mystery horror, or crime fiction, among so many others. They’re also a great option for history buffs who appreciate that era of our history. Similarly, their tendency to include commentary on culture, heritage, class, and status ensures that though you’re reading fiction, it’s not just fluff. 

Even though Western mysteries—or rather, all mysteries generally—tend to follow a somewhat predictable plot line, (which is quite a beneficial trait for cozy mystery fans, by the way) western mysteries are known for creating gritty, unforgettable characters that inspire us to live life by our own rules. 

So put on your cowboy boots and get ready to wrangle. From a historical sharpshooting legend taking up a murder investigation to a Wyoming sheriff unraveling a revenge plot, you'll be hooked.

Here are 13 Western mystery books you can read tonight!

Man Drowning

Man Drowning

By Henry Kuttner

An incredibly metaphorical piece of literature from the title to the resolution, Man Drowning follows Nick Barring as he hitchhikes from California to New York. Making a stop in Arizona, Nick takes a handyman job with a mentally unbalanced couple to stay close to his ex-wife, Sherry, who works at a bar in Phoenix.

In his own distorted—and overall ineffective—way, he tries to be good enough for the woman he thinks is the love of his life. This story borrows from the brooding Arizona landscape of the desert to showcase how well that works out (or rather, doesn’t work out) for him.

In the Moon of Red Ponies

In the Moon of Red Ponies

By James Lee Burke

As soon as you get past the names of the protagonists (I mean, come on, Billy Bob and Johnny American Horse? You have to laugh a little) you’ll find that In the Moon of Red Ponies is a beautifully written, atmospheric story that is the epitome of contemporary western mysteries.

In Billy Bob’s last story, he defeats a plethora of violent evil-doers and moves his family out to Montana to continue to serve the government and uphold the law. But he realizes very quickly that those he swore to protect, may just be the death of him. 

His first client in Montana is Johnny American Horse, a young activist for land preservation and Native American rights. He is charged with the murder of two mysterious men–though these men have either tried to kill Johnny themselves or at least scare him out of upholding his political agenda.

Billy Bob’s investigation leads him to a confusing web of potential suspects; but complications arise, dead bodies pile up, and the more truth Billy Bob learns about Johnny’s arrest, the more danger he discovers he and his family are in.

The Deputy

The Deputy

By Victor Gischler

A great example of a character-driven, modern noir western mystery, The Deputy introduces us to Toby Sawyer, whose reputation is so trife and pathetic, he’d do better not to be known at all.

Stuck in a small Oklahoma town with a wife, an infant, a girlfriend on the side, two years of junior college, no health benefits, a part-time job at the police station, and living in a trailer (are you seeing what I mean?) he’s tasked with guarding a dead body by the chief of police. 

As the town’s claim to fame is that it’s a common pit stop for truckers, it’s very odd to find a dead body in the middle of the road at midnight. This is why the police chief needs all hands on deck, and ultimately, how Toby was given the job of babysitting the body–a job he showed up to wearing a Weezer t-shirt and sweatpants, by the way.

But as complications arise and bad guys continue to pop out of the woodwork, perhaps Toby will have what it takes to prove himself after all. 

Hand of Evil

Hand of Evil

By J. A. Jance

The Hand of Evil is a suspenseful tale spanning multiple generations, highlighting two very different women with one horrifying secret. Seemingly straight out of a nightmare, a man struggles to keep upright as he’s dragged along a desolate road in Arizona, his hand trapped in the door of the speeding car. The first of many brutal, future crimes, the killer then continues his killing spree, up and down the Southwest. 

One hundred miles away, Ali Reynolds is grieving the loss of her newscasting job and the betrayal of her husband, but it’s about to get worse. A wealthy, yet distant family member calls her out of the blue to ask for a meeting, but before Ali can figure out what it’s all about, she receives another shocking call: her friend’s teenage daughter has disappeared.

In offering to help, Ali unknowingly begins a quest that not only reveals some fatal secrets, but also introduces her to two undiscriminating murderers…



By Peter Bowen

Perhaps a more gruesome tale than the others on our list, Notches by Peter Bowen begins with a series of murders, all young women, who have been raped, tortured, and left in the Montana wilderness as food for the wolves.

Enraged by the cryptic symbolism and the endless games the killer is using to send a message that Du Pre can’t decipher, he grimly discovers that to find a killer, he has to think like a killer…

Coyote Wind

Coyote Wind

By Peter Bowen

Gabriel Du Pré, a no-nonsense Métis Indian, is Toussaint, Montana's cattle inspector, but he takes on much more than just policing the sale of livestock.

The town's small police force can't handle the sprawling county alone, so Du Pré jumps into the fray when he needs to.  He finds himself tangled up in a generations-old mystery when the sheriff offers gas money in exchange for him taking a look at an old plane wreck in the desert.

For about 30 years the plane has been sitting under the sun, the bodies inside decaying away into bones. Two of the skeletons are complete, but all that's left of the third is his hands, his skull, and the bullet that killed him.

Wyoming Cowboy Justice

Wyoming Cowboy Justice

By Nicole Helm

Grady Carson may be the bad boy of Bent, Wyoming, but he knows his brother isn't a murderer—he just has to prove it. To find the truth he teams up with by-the-book cop Laurel Delaney.

Family tensions don't make their partnership easy, but then again, neither does their bubbling attraction. Can they track down a killer, stop a family war, and kindle a forbidden romance? Or will they be the next ones to turn up dead?

Playing Catch-Up

Playing Catch-Up

By A. B. Guthrie Jr.

On the fringes of Overthrust, Montana sits a brothel run by Madame Simone. She values discretion, and things are running smoothly and profitably. And then one of her girls is found dead.

With the local deputies unable to scrounge up any leads, Sheriff Chick Charleston rings up his colleague, college-educated Jason Beard. As Jase hops onto the investigation, two big clues come to light: an unknown stranger publicly threatened Laura Jane the night she was murdered, and a piece of Laura's jewelry is missing.

Before Charleston and Jase can celebrate their progress, a teenage girl is killed in a shockingly similar way.

the cold dish

The Cold Dish

By Craig Johnson

Walt Longmire has been the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming for 25 years. He has high hopes of ending his tenure quietly, but the murder of Cody Pritchard throws a wrench in those plans.

Two years ago, Cody was one of four boys given a suspended sentence for raping a Cheyenne girl. Considering his body was found near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, it's looking like someone is out for revenge.

girl with a gun

Girl with a Gun

By Kari Bovee

This historical mystery puts renowned marksman Annie Oakley at the center of a murder investigation.

Annie has just been offered the head-liner position in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. It's her big chance to make all of her dreams come true—and take care of her family in the process. But as she skyrockets to fame, her Native assistant is found dead in her tent.

When Annie stumbles across a startling secret from the victim's past, she gets the sneaking suspicion the death was actually a murder. She sets out to find the truth, but soon discovers the murderer is much closer than she thought.

When her prized gelding goes missing, she starts to think she might have been the target this whole time.

South California Purples

South California Purples

By Baron Birtcher

Ty Dawson is a Korean War veteran who finds solace now in running the Diamond D, his family's cattle ranch.

Ty's little slice of peace is disrupted by the unrest of 1973: the return of soldiers from Vietnam, the Wounded Knee stand-off, and the Watergate Scandal. Then a strange series of cattle deaths culminates in the murder of a cowhand.

Things only worsen when news arrives that the Bureau of Land Management is planning a wild horse slaughter. Protesters and media outlets swarm into town, followed by a vicious biker gang known as the Charlatans.

The overwhelmed sheriff named Ty the new undersheriff. Ty is going to have to take the initiative to protect not only his town, but his family and his way of life.

Montana Noir

Montana Noir

By James Grady, Keir Graff

More interested in quick reads? This collection of mystery stories set in Montana will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Featuring work from Eric Heidle, David Abrams, Caroline Patterson, Thomas McGuane, and more, this anthology of Western noir delivers 14 dark and brutal tales.

desert heat

Desert Heat

By J.A. Jance

Andy Brady was set to be the next sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona. Now he lies dead under the merciless Arizona sun. The authorities say Andy was a dirty cop who killed himself, but his wife, Joanna, knows better.

Determined to unveil the coverup, she sets out to clear her husband's name and track down the person that killed him. Unfortunately, her efforts only put her young daughter in the crosshairs of danger.

Featured image: Christhian Hernandez / Unsplash