Monday, January 11, 2021

Dodge City by Tom Clavin

This review originally appeared at Macmillan's Criminal Element.

The Wyatt Earp myth is spent, taking its place alongside Bingham’s Washington crossing the Delaware and Paul Revere shouting “The British are coming!” Sure, there’s an element of truth to the timeworn renditions, but we’ve finally passed over a transom where the reality is now far more entertaining and gripping than the malarkey, in short, we’ve grown up. In the author’s note, Tom Clavin writes, “… most research sources revealed that legend and fact often overlapped and that the facts about the lives of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson before, during, and after Dodge City were usually at least as satisfying as the fictions.”

Earp’s myth, via Hollywood mainly, has seen a lot of mileage out of the honorable-above-reproach-lawman song, who even at his worse (see, for example, Wyatt’s vendetta ride) appears merited in all that he did—that the ends justified the means. Even as I write this, you can bet your Buntline Special that a screenwriter is putting the finishing touches on yet another stagnant showdown at the O.K. Let’s hope the producers rip up that script and read Tom Clavin’s clear-headed novel. And the beauty is that in a gifted historian writer’s hands (ala David McCullough and Joseph Ellis), the fact sheet can still have a cinematic thrust. Observe this meeting between Old West titans: 

When Bat stepped off the train, he had an ivory-handled six-gun on each hip and a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. Wyatt waited for him, along with Bassett, Frank McLain, Neil Brown, and several other men wearing pistols. Bat was curious as to the whereabouts of Doc Holliday, who he knew had joined Wyatt in Kansas City, but with the men already here—and this was just the reception committee; likely there were more in town—there was plenty of firepower.

Wyatt and Bat greeted each other. Though different men physically—Wyatt tall and slender, Bat of average height and stocky—their grins were the same, indicating pleasure to see each other, even though the reunion was to settle a matter that might risk their lives. Then they set off, natural leaders, the rest of the men flanking them, starting down the dusty streets of Dodge City, ready for one last showdown to preserve the peace.

Damn, but didn’t that put me right there in the lawless, tumbleweed-strewn town. Another perk to perusing these pages was gaining a fuller picture of Bat Masterson, as Mr. Clavin writes “[he] was no one’s Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, or Slim Pickens.” He was opinionated, willing to back up beliefs with force if pushed, and widely known as a man who could put away drink after drink, remaining happy-go-lucky.

Bat and Wyatt shared a bond in that they both came from clans of tight-knit brothers, and both lawmen lost a sibling in the line of duty. Bat witnessed his brother Ed, who was trying to disarm a drunken cowboy, get shot down. The assassination happened at such close range that Ed’s vest lit on fire as he stumbled across the street before collapsing.

Ed lived in a room above the saloon, and Bat and a couple of men brought him there, blood leaving a trail up the boot-worn steps. Soon after a doctor arrived, he informed Bat that there was nothing to be done for Ed. In an anguished whisper, Bat said, “This will just about kill Mother,” recalling all the times he had been told to watch out for his mild-mannered brother. “She’ll never forgive me for letting him get killed in this town.” Bat was already certain he would never forgive himself.
Bat sat beside his brother, holding Ed’s hand. During the next thirty minutes, what was left of the young marshal’s life ebbed away. Then, without regaining consciousness and thus unaware of his brother’s tears, Ed Masterson died.

Author Loren D. Estleman says, “Tom Clavin’s Dodge City is a lesson in historical reporting, exhaustively researched and enthusiastically written with all the page-turning drive of a modern thriller. He’s swept aside a century of cheesy myth to excavate the far more fascinating reality that lay beneath.”

Agreed. This reader enjoyed walking the streets of Dodge once again, and yet it felt like the first time.

David Cranmer is the editor of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and whose own body of work has appeared in such diverse publications as The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.


  1. David, I have not read this book, but this review of yours definitely makes me want to snatch it up and give it a read, for sure. Something that caught my eye in the 1st excerpt of the meeting between Bat and Wyatt was the mention of Frank McLain. I had not realized that was the spelling of McLain's last name--it's very unusual, and was my great grandfather's last name, my grandmother's maiden name. I'm always curious about those who carry that name because of the scarcity of that particular spelling of it. So now I have another rabbit hole to go down in my genealogy research! LOL

    Thanks so much for this--I'm making note of this book for my next Amazon order.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Deleted my previous comment because when I first signed on I got a blank white page instead of our familiar antique-gold design and I was whining for the old page back!

      David I have not read this book either, but it sounds excellent. I much prefer a real human being instead of a legend and would rather read about the mistakes they made than read how they were always correct. Thanks for the review!

  3. Cheryl, genealogy is such a deep rabbit hole dive for sure. My dad gave me a strong appreciation for our family history and I’m currently waiting on some information through Ancestry that should get me the farthest back in our timeline yet. And I hope you find out more about the McLain’s and let us know. How cool would that be to be connected to such legends!

    Frank, you are welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

    JES, history is so rich. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that prefers a factual take.

  4. Wonderful post. I've read the biographies of Masterson and have done research on his time in Colorado. This book I've seen but have yet to find time to read. Thanks for another TBR book. Doris

  5. Doris, oh no! I've added to your TBR pile! If you are anything like me that pile is in danger of toppling over and injuring a passerby. lol.

  6. Nice review. There are a lot of us interested in Bat Masterson. I have written two books about him, one published, and one that is not.

    Interesting and true, "Bat and Wyatt shared a bond in that they both came from clans of tight-knit brothers, and both lawmen lost a sibling in the line of duty. Bat witnessed his brother Ed, who was trying to disarm a drunken cowboy, get shot down. The assassination happened at such close range that Ed’s vest lit on fire as he stumbled across the street before collapsing."

  7. Charlie, Bat was quite the character. I find his years being a sports writer in the big city to be equally intriguing.