Custer and the Press

MENTION George Armstrong Custer at any gathering of western scholars and you’ll likely find you’ve tugged at a painful scab on the collective American subconscious. Our feelings about Custer are deep and contradictory and mixed with guilt over our treatment of native tribes, and it’s difficult to reconcile Custer’s ultimate sacrifice with accounts that portray him as a fool or a madman. We like our hero stories to be tidy, and the Custer story is a mess.

It’s exactly this complexity that keeps us fascinated, and makes Custer a perennially viable topic for university and commercial publishers alike. From the gems (think Evan S. Connell and Nathaniel Philbrick) to the duds (Larry McMurtry), there are enough books to keep Custer buffs reading for a lifetime. The challenge is to find work that will offer some new understanding of one of the defining moments of the American psyche.In his new book, Shooting Arrows and Slinging Mud, James E. Mueller does just this. He examines the role that journalists had in shaping the public perception of Custer in the immediate aftermath of the 1876 battle in which Custer and 267 under his command were killed in an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe near the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

Mueller, a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, at Denton, is a veteran reporter and the author of two previous books, both examining the relationship between the press and recent presidents. In Shooting Arrows, Mueller combs contemporary accounts in the days and weeks after the battle to present a mosaic that outlines that thinking of America while the news was still fresh and bloody in our minds.

The conversation turned on questions that resonate to this day, from our policy toward the Indians to who really was to blame for one the greatest military blunders of all time. Mueller is a careful and restrained writer, and Shooting Arrows can be slow going at times, but the journey is worth it. Consider his wealth of detail about Mark Kellogg, the only reporter to accompany the Seventh Cavalry to the Little Bighorn.

Kellogg was 43, a widower with two young daughters, trying to start a new career as a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune. “The reporter trotted after Custer,” Mueller writes, “riding on a mule carrying two saddlebags bulging with paper and pencil and enough bacon, sugar, and coffee to last fifteen days.”Mueller dispels the myth that journalists of the time were hacks and hucksters that capitalized on the sensational to sell newspapers—and who beat the drum for revenge against the Indians.

Instead, Mueller’s account shows that, despite their cultural biases, journalists provided credible accounts of the battle and wrote thoughtful editorials. In addition, at least one journalist made the ultimate sacrifice in reporting first-hand from the Indian campaigns, a story that was largely ignored until the shock of the Little Big Horn.

Mark Kellogg, the Bismarck Tribune reporter, died with Custer.

– Review by Max McCoy  for the Spring 2014 issue of The Great Plains Newsletter.



Ophelia Wylde on Kindle


OF GRAVE CONCERN, the first book in my Opehlia Wylde paranormal mystery series, is on sale as a Kindle ebook for a limited time. It’s $1.99 as part of a promotion by the publisher, Kensington Books. Ophelia is a former con woman-turned-psychic detective who solves crimes in the Old West by talking to the only witnesses who don’t lie — the dead.

The next Ophelia Wylde novel, HIGH SPIRITS, will be released in July.



Ophelia makes “Best of Western Books” list

OF GRAVE CONCERN has been listed as the best mystery in True West magazine’s “The Best of Western Books for 2014.”

J. Stuart Rosebrook, the magazine’s book review editor,  says that “2013 was a great year in Western publishing,” and he gives his top five choices in categories ranging from biography to fiction to photography. Beneath the fiction category, Rosebrook lists OF GRAVE CONCERN: AN OPHELIA WYLDE PARANORMAL MYSTERY as the top Western mystery. Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, is named as the best crime novel.

Rosebrook ranks Phillip Meyer as the best overall fiction writer, and describes Meyer’s novel, The Son, as a “broad expanse of an epic family history, whose trials and tribulations are as complex as William Faulkner’s Compson family history in The Sound and the Fury and as permanently stained by the seven deadly sins as Shakespeare’s Lord and Lady MacBeth.”

Check out Rosebrook’s picks. There’s enough reading there to get you well into 2014.


Prairie tub

HERE’S THE bathub at a buffalo wallow at the Tallgrass Prairie I mentioned in the previous post. This spot is about four miles into the reserve, and you can only get to it by hiking. What’s it for? I’d like to think it was put there by the park rangers as a sort of Easter egg for hikers, but it probably has a more mundane use. Hay for the bison when the preserve is socked in by snow, is my guess (can’t be water, because there’s a hole in the bottom of the tub). The horizon is curved because I shot this with my GoPro Hero 3 camera, a palm-sized still/video camera that has a near-fisheye lens.


Sudden winter

WENT HIKING at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve on Sunday, and a couple of a miles down the trail I came to this buffalo wallow. I’d been to the wallow before (and another, miles further on, where’s there’s an enigmatic bathtub), but those previous hikes were on beautiful fall days when the temp was 65 degrees F. On Sunday, it was 28 or 30 degrees, and although there was little wind, it was still cold, at least when you weren’t walking. The landscape was surreal, and the light was good, so I made this photo. Wasn’t really out on a photo expedition (the goal was to fully break in a new pair of hiking boots), but the images truly matched the mood of the hike, sudden winter in the flint hills. Can snow be far behind? Already I’m longing for spring.


Ophelia in the Ozarks

FOUND MYSELF in the Ozarks over the recent holiday and discovered OF GRAVE CONCERN on the shelf at Lebanon Books, 727 S. Jefferson St., in Lebanon, Mo. Naturally I signed it for them — and did a quick cartoon on the title page. I attempt to do some kind of cartoon with every Ophelia Wylde book I sign; each cartoon is a little different, but most will feature Boot Hill, a skull, or Ophelia’s raven, Eddy. Some are more elaborate than others, depending on the situation. The ones I signed at the Boot Hill Museum Complex at Dodge City during the book launch back in July were quite detailed, as the occasion demanded. I’m a terrible artist, but fans seem to enjoy the cartoons anyway.

Later, I found copies of the Ophelia book in the small book display at the Price Cutter grocery, 550 N. Jefferson. I refrained from defacing these with a cartoon, as I was afraid the store manager wouldn’t be as understanding as the bookstore down the street. But, I wanted to.

Last month, just before Halloween, I spoke about the Old West and the paranormal at the FUEL coffee house at Llano, Texas, before heading to New Orleans for a conference. I was invited to Llano by my good and brilliant friend W.C.  Jameson, and we had a fine discussion in front of a nearly packed house about everything from the UFO wave of the 1890s to Spiritualism to Thunderbirds. I sold a few books, and drew a few cartoons, and enjoyed chatting with the people who came out to hear me speak. I’ve often wanted to leave something special for people who take the time to attend my events, and the cartoons are indeed special; each cartoon takes a few minutes, enough time for a real chat with the people who are buying my books. I’ll only do this for the Ophelia books, and not the others. I couldn’t imagine attempting to do an Indiana Jones book (that would be stepping into the ring with cover Drew Struzan) or one of the Jacob Gamble books, because it would just be too grim. But with Ophelia, it just works.



Ophelia in TRUE WEST magazine

OF GRAVE CONCERN is reviewed in the October issue of True West magazine, on newstands now. Sherry Monahan calls the novel a “masterful tale” and declares Ophelia Wylde as one of her “new favorite western characters.” Monahan is an expert on the Victorian west, and her books include The Wicked West: Bruisers, Cruisers, Gamblers, and More. In her review, Monahan says:  “(McCoy) creates a gripping story as he blends the rugged West with the Victorian’s paranormal fascination.”



Ophelia at Barnes & Noble

OF GRAVE CONCERN is featured in the “New in Paperback” tower displays at Barnes & Noble book stores across the country. This shot was taken yesterday at one of my favorite B&N stores, on Wanamaker in Topeka.  The college bookstore at Emporia State University, where I teach, is also a B&N store, so that one is among my favorites as well. Ophelia is in the middle of the tower, on the third row down.


OF GRAVE CONCERN on Kindle bestsellers list

OF GRAVE CONCERN is currently #38 on Kindle’s “Metaphysical and Visionary” bestselling fiction list. The top three spots are “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman; “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern; and “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell. This surprised me at first–after all, OGC  is a paranormal mystery with a somewhat off-tone cozy cover–but on reflection, it makes sense. Ophelia Wylde would be pleased. At right, I’m standing next to the locomotive at the Boot Hill Museum Complex at Dodge City.





Ophelia Wylde tomorrow at Boot Hill

The launch of my new paranormal mystery series set in the Old West will be from 2 to 5 p.m. tomorrow, Tuesday, July 2, at Boot Hill in Dodge City. That’s fitting, because the setting for OF GRAVE CONCERN is 1877 Dodge City. I’ll give a talk and another signing at 7 p.m. at the Dodge City Public Library. Here’s a link to the story in the Dodge City Globe. Go here for the Amazon page.