Book Review: Dodge City by Tom Clavin
By David CranmerMarch 19, 2018
Now in paperback, Dodge City by Tom Clavin is the New York Times bestselling story of the taming of the Wild West—set in Dodge City, the most depraved and criminal town in the nation.
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 bullshit, 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.