The Greeneville Sun
By Cameron Judd
April 3, 2021
They were called “the Piccadilly Cowboys.” Not as a formally organized group, but as a handful of writers with something in common: they were writers, and what they wrote were novels of the American West.
One more thing they had in common was that, despite their subject matter, they were British. That’s why the “Piccadilly” part of the name is there. These writers tended to hang out at a particular pub in the Piccadilly area of Westminster in London, England, and supposedly that was as far west as most of them ever had been.
During the latter decades of the 20th century, and particularly in the 1970s, their books were present on bookstore shelves and drug store paperback racks all across the United States, probably read by many American fans who had no idea they were reading words written by Brits.
A current British western author about whom I recently wrote in this column is Andrew McBride of Brighton, England. Andrew, however, would not be considered one of the Piccadilly Cowboys.
As a writer of paperback westerns myself, I was intrigued to learn about these guys. I already knew there were British western writers (J.T. Edson, for example, though he was not part of the “Piccadilly Cowboy” circle.). What I didn’t know was that there was a kind of informal circle of them with an informal but specific name, that being the “Piccadilly Cowboy” tag.
Despite their UK origins, these writers were some of the most active authors of novels of the American West. Most of their American readers probably had no idea so many western authors they read were Brits who might never have visited the United States.
After I sold my first western novel to a small independent mass market publisher in New York, I started scouring the westerns sections of bookstores, just to familiarize myself with the terrain I was entering, so to speak. I wanted to get an idea of who was out there doing the same kind of writing I was going to do.
Writing for Leisure Books, the same publisher who put out my first novels, was a fellow named Peter McCurtin. He was not, I don’t think, considered one of the Piccadilly Cowboys, and he wasn’t English, but Irish. He wrote, among other things, a western series for Leisure about a character called “Sundance.”
I (and many others) never knew whether Peter McCurtin was a real person or just a “house name” that more than one author might write under.
A “house name” allows a publisher to generate books with the same author name on the cover and spine, but with different people actually writing the books. Sometimes a real, flesh-and-blood author might have his or her name become a “house name” after the real author dies. I myself wrote one western that was published under the name of a dead author.
Checking recently with my editor at Leisure Books (and later at Bantam Books as he progressed through the publishing world), I found that indeed there was a real Peter McCurtin. He’s now deceased.
Greg remembers McCurtin as a reliable writer with a solid storytelling style. Irish he might have been but, he knew how to tell an American western story. I recall Greg sending me a McCurtin book or two back in the late 1970s as kind of a training tool for somebody (me) trying to learn how to write commercial westerns.
A little further research indicates that McCurtin, as he got older, sometimes hired other writers to complete projects he wasn’t able to complete himself, with the understanding that the ghost-written novel would be published under the McCurtin name. Thus McCurtin was both a real writer and also a “house name.”
There apparently were some Peter McCurtin novels that were written entirely by ghost writers, with the real McCurtin having no involvement at all.
Something similar held true for the Piccadilly Cowboys, whose ranks included the following: George G. Gilman, Joseph Hedges, William M. James, Charles R. Pike, Thomas H. Stone, Frank Chandler, Jane Harman, Alex Peters, William Pine, William Terry, James Russell and David Ford. If you have been a long-term reader of westerns, you may have read some of those authors.
Here’s a plot twist for you, though: all those authors named in the preceding paragraph were the same guy, an English writer named Terry Harknett.
Yep, one guy, writing under all those different names. And probably he wasn’t the only one. There may have been a whole stable of writers scattered around the world, turning out manuscripts to be published under one or more of those names listed above.
Books in one western paperback series written by Harknett, the “Edge” series, were marketed in the United States as “The Most Violent Westerns In Print.” I remember seeing many of those on bookstore shelves back when I was getting into western writing.
Promoting novels based on the level of violence they include isn’t really surprising, I suppose, considering that the “Edge” series was published in the same general period when “slasher” horror films and high-violence thriller films were big at the box office. Even I wrote a western novel with some toned-down trace elements of a “slasher” film: “Jerusalem Camp,” which involved a killer stalking and terrorizing an isolated California mining town.
Writer/blogger Paul Bishop, on his Paulbishopbooks.com site, writes about the Piccadilly Cowboys in a way that reveals abundant research. He says that what led their publishers to amp up the violence in their westerns was the rise and influence of the “spaghetti western,” those films set in the American West but produced and filmed mostly in Italy and Spain.
Those films, exemplified by the “Man With No Name” trilogy that turned a serape-draped, gunslinging Clint Eastwood into an international film star, featured abundant gunplay and high body counts. Paperback publishers noticed and shaped at least some of their own westerns accordingly.
Using assumed identities — pseudonyms such as George Gilman (Terry Harknett), Frederick H. Christian (Fred Nolan), William M. James (Harknett, Lawrence James, John Harvey), James A. Muir/Mathew Kirk (Angus Wells), L. J. Coburn (James, Harvey), Neil Hunter (Mike Linaker), Charles R. Pike (Kenneth Bulmer), and many others” found inspiration in the “violence, heat, dust, and bloodshed of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Together, they shunned the generic moral and puritanical principles of traditional westerns in favor of a blood-soaked, nihilistic, ultra-realism splash across their pages.”
Leone’s “A Firstful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” all were filmed largely in Almeria, Spain in the 1960s.
Terry Harknett, who is now deceased, was the writer who put out the paperback “novelization” of at least one of those three Leone films.
I recall a conversation with the late writer Don Coldsmith at a convention of Western Writers of America. We talked in part about spaghetti westerns. Don, an older man who was a retired Kansas physician and a classy fellow, wasn’t a fan.