Wednesday, June 8, 2011
From the shelves of the Paco library
The story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and their famous feud with the cowboys in the environs of Tombstone, Arizona, has been told many times, from many different perspectives. I recently stumbled across the late Robert B. Parker’s fictional version, Gunfighter’s Rhapsody, and it made the old story seem fresh again.
Parker is best known as a mystery writer, perhaps especially for his Spenser series. I confess that, until now, I had only read one of his books: the “non-Spenserian” Poodle Springs, Raymond Chandler’s unfinished novel that Parker brought to a conclusion (and in my view, he did a great job). I wasn’t aware that Parker had tackled the western genre, but he does so in Rhapsody with a sure grip on the times and on the manner of men who settled in some of our country’s wilder corners.
Using a spare prose that mirrors the laconic style of speech typically associated with the hardened frontiersman, he still brilliantly manages to have these reticent men, for the most part, tell their own story. And he approaches the tale from what, I believe, is a unique angle: the romantic involvement between Wyatt and Josie Marcus, and the consequent plotting of revenge by Josie’s ex-fiancé, sheriff John Behan.
One encounters all the familiar characters: the Earp brothers and their women, the unstable and dangerous (but doggedly loyal) Doc Holliday, the politically ambitious sheriff Behan, basically likeable rustlers like Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo (and thoroughly unlikeable ones like Ike Clanton), and a host of minor (but historically accurate) figures ranging from Earp partisans Texas Jack Vermillion and Turkey Creek Johnson, to Behan supporters William Breakenridge (vide a previous “Shelves” post) and Frank Stillwell. And there’s even a big dose of politics - the Earps were Republicans, Behan and most of the cowboys were Democrats - to add fuel to the fire.
This is a straight-forward, two-fisted western, as austere as the desert country in which the action takes place. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and plan to delve into Parker’s other offerings in the genre at the first opportunity.