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A hard-boiled gunslinger with a guilty conscience

Morgan Kane’s career started as a traditional American Western hero, but he evolved into a more Norwegian and social realistic hero. That is the conclusion of Karoline Aksnes’s doctoral thesis.

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Et utvalg av Louis Mastersons Morgan Kane-bøker.
Et utvalg av Louis Mastersons Morgan Kane-bøker. Foto: Tor Martin Lien

"Morgan Kane is a fictional heroic character, and his life is not particularly realistic. But he is more complex and has a larger range than the heroes of American Western books,” Karoline Aksnes says.

Recently, she defended her doctoral thesis at the University of Agder (UiA) titled “Morgan Kane: A Nordic Western”.

A Norwegian writing American Western

Karoline Aksnes

Karoline Aksnes has not written a portrayal of a gunslinger, but has compared Morgan Kane and his world to American Western books. Her doctoral thesis shows that Morgan Kane has more in common with the heroes in American crime fiction and Nordic crime fiction.

The new doctor has studied the cultural side of Morgan Kane and considers him to be a little American but even more Norwegian. But what does it mean to write a Norwegian Western story taking place in an American culture the way that the Norwegian author Kjell Hallbing did under the pseudonym Louis Masterson?

“I have treated Morgan Kane as a mixture of Norwegian and American culture. Kjell Hallbing is inspired by American culture and an American genre, but he writes for a Norwegian audience, and that influences his works," Aksnes says.

Some of the most important differences between Morgan Kane and American Western books are:

  • Morgan Kane is a more complex character
  • Morgan Kane is a more social realistic hero, and
  • Morgan Kane books contain social criticism and have a larger focus on society’s losers

Louis Masterson

Under the pseudonym Louis Masterson, Kjell Hallbing (1934-2004) published 83 books about the Western hero Morgan Kane during the years 1966-1985. There were times were Hallbing wrote at least one Morgan Kane book a month. At the same time, he wrote short stories about Kane and other Western heroes under the Masterson name or other pseudonyms.

According to the researcher, 1 in 4 Norwegians has a Morgan Kane book in their bookshelf. The books have sold a total of 25 million copies in Europe.

"Because Morgan Kane is such a complex character, you do not get tired of him. The portrayal of the American West that Norwegians got to know through Kjell Hallbing is unique and different from the American version. Hallbing’s writing is more social realistic than mythical. Morgan Kane’s morals are sometimes completely different from his brothers-in-arms in American Western books," Aksnes says.

Social realistic Western

Morgan Kane started out as traditional hero in line with the American Western model. He was a superior and confident hero. In other words, a slightly one-dimensional gunslinger who never did anything wrong and always got his way.

As the series continued, he gradually became less perfect while the list of his negative traits grew longer.

"This broader or deeper characterisation is a part of what makes Morgan Kane fascinating. He is never completely successful in getting his life on track. That is where the social realism is in these books. Morgan Kane never manages to work his way up in society, and he does not realise the American dream,” Aksnes says.

American dream

The American dream is achieving what you want as long as you work hard enough and long enough. Morgan Kane does not get anywhere. He starts out as a gunslinger and never becomes anything else. He is always broke and looking for new jobs.

"He does not rise in the ranks. The society that is portrayed in the Morgan Kane books is not an American dream. It is more of a social realistic society," 

Aksnes says.  

The researcher emphasises that also Morgan Kane is placed in a fictional world where the hero has a special talent for getting first place and win most fights. Yet, the point is that Morgan Kane is a complex character with both positive and negative sides, and he lives in a world where the society’s less flattering sides appear, such as poverty, power abuse and corruption.

The American Western myth

The first Morgan Kane books were similar in style to the American Western books. The classic American Western was based on the hero that knows how to do everything, endures everything and wins every time. Granted, Morgan Kane rarely loses either. He might not know many things, but he is the best at the things he does know and endures most things. 

But where the American hero always has the law and morality on his side, Morgan Kane is marked by what he has done, for better and for worse. He is nervous, jealous, alcoholic and does not mind using brothels and stepping outside of the law and morality if he thinks that is the best solution.

The knight in a Western novel

Profilbilde Kjell Hallbing

Kjell Hallbing. Photo: SNL

"In American Western, the hero’s morals could border on the moralistic. Kane, however, could also be immoral," Aksnes says. 

She points out that American Western heroes’ origins lie in courteous knight traditions. The knight is a gentleman, as was the Western hero in the traditional American Western books. The hero never did anything wrong, he always did what was right and just.

"A typical example is the hero Lassiter by Zane Gray. The hero created by the Western writer Louis L’Amour is another good example of this hero character,” Aksnes says.

Experimenting with Kane

Kjell Hallbing continued to sell more books as he wrote them. The writer was confident in himself and his writing. A British publishing firm had also bought the rights to publishing Morgan Kane in English.

"After 1971, Hallbing started to experiment more with the main character,” Aksnes says.

She points to the first Kane books which was written more after the pattern of the American Western books which had one-dimensional heroes portrayed in a good light. Along with confidence came experimentation and a hero with more depth. Morgan Kane became multifaceted, and his negative traits, such as nervousness, alcohol abuse and womanising, were given more space.

A hero with a troubled past

Morgan Kane was not just a cold-blooded gunslinger, but he had a history and a society around him that helped to further define him. Some of his mistakes were portrayed in the El Gringo books which contained stories about his younger days.

"He became a hero you could look up to as well as pity, and the more Hallbing experimented with Morgan Kane, the more popular the series became. The books about the hero’s troubled childhood and the inner demons he struggled with sold more than the first books,” Aksnes says.

She defines the first period as the years from 1966 to the El Gringo books in 1971. Then the books started having more realism and social criticism, and Morgan Kane often showed new sides of himself.

Nordic noir

While Morgan Kane gradually became less like American Western heroes, he became more like the heroes in Scandinavian crime fiction.

"My most surprising discovery is that the Morgan Kane books gradually gain traits similar to the ones found in Nordic crime novels which portray problems in society and a society that is dark and cold and where the hero also has personal problems,” Aksnes says.

This literary tradition was eventually called Nordic noir. The Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and their policeman hero Martin Beck, as well as Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen and his detective hero Varg Veum, were among those who wrote crime fiction following the social critical tradition in the 1970s. 

"Morgan Kane became an imperfect hero, completely different from his brothers in American Western books, and more like the heroes of the hardboiled and social critical crime novels,” says Aksnes.