“Ragtime Cowboys” by Loren D. Estleman (Forge Books, 256 pages, May 6)
In 1988, the Blake Edwards movie “Sunset” teamed Bruce Willis and James Garner as actor Tom Mix and veteran lawman Wyatt Earp, respectively, in a rousing Hollywood mystery thriller set in 1929.
Now, Loren D. Estleman’s
Western-noir novel “Ragtime Cowboys” teams Charles Siringo and Dashiell Hammett, both former detectives in the Prohibition era, in an exciting Hollywood mystery thriller set in the early 1920s.
While the concept is similar between the two stories — placing historical people into fictional situations that likely never could have happened in real life — Estleman’s novel takes on a life of its own that will delight fans of the writers Siringo and Hammett, and perhaps those of Jack London as well.
In “Ragtime Cowboys,” Siringo is eaking out an existence in Los Angeles within sight of the Hollywoodland sign on Mount Lee overlooking the city (the sign was erected in 1923; the “land” part was removed in 1949). He is setting out pots to catch the rain coming through his leaky roof when he receives a visitor: Wyatt Earp.
The retired lawman has had a race horse go missing, and he wants Siringo’s help tracking it down. He knows Siringo formerly worked with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and Earp believes he can do the job. He’s also lined up the assistance of Hammett, another former Pinkerton agent.
Siringo and Hammett get together — one a confirmed capitalist and the other a dedicated socialist, but their common Pinkerton backgrounds override political differences — and soon track the stable hand who would have been involved in the disappearance of the horse to Beauty Ranch, the property of the late author Jack London, whose widow and daughter still reside there.
The mystery expands to include a plot to corner the petroleum market that turned into the Teapot Dome scandal, and speculation by a bootlegger named Joseph Kennedy, who vows one day to place an Irish Catholic in the White House. (He preferred his son, Joe Jr., for the role, but after the younger Joe died in World War II, he pinned his hopes on his son Jack, whom we remember as President John F. Kennedy.)
Estleman cleverly ties everyone together, throws in witty repartee and familiar lines from Siringo and Hammett’s books and keeps it entertaining from beginning to finish. Oklahoma’s own Will Rogers even makes an appearance, twirling a rope and cracking jokes. Other than a few chronological and geographical discrepancies, which do nothing to detract from the story, the tale takes on a historic verisimilitude that may have some readers wondering if things could have actually happened as described.
To make clear what was real and what was not, the author includes a historical note at the end.
Estleman has written more than 70 novels and won numerous Shamus, Spur and Western Heritage awards, and “Ragtime Cowboys” is a worthy addition to his work.