Re: RARA-AVIS: Looking for hard-boiled westerns (O.K. Corral)

Date: 22 May 2005


Re your question below:

> Are there any hard-boiled westerns?

I'm a bit late in responding to this but as the only
(ahem) Spur award winner in Rara-Avis (ahem), I feel PARTICULARLY well-qualified (ahem) to answer this question.

(Hey, sorry, guys, but the awards ceremony is next month, so it's on my mind a lot and, anyway, I haven't bragged on it in weeks).

Actually, I'm not going to deal with western novels generally, but with one particular sub-sub-genre of the western. To wit, novels that fictionalize the OK Corral shoot-out between the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang.

Of course movies and TV have run this event into the ground. There's even been a STAR TREK episode built around the battle, for crying out loud!

It's also been the focus of many different novels. Will Henry, Oakley Hall, Matt Braun, Nelson Nye, and, just this year, Richard Wheeler, are just a few of the well-respected western novelists who have tried their hand at turning this event into fiction.

Interestingly, a number of writers who are better-known as hard-boiled crime novelists than as western novelists (or at least, AS well-known) have also used the gunfight as grist for their fictional mill.

Indeed it may have been one of THE seminal hard-boiled writers who founded this particular western sub-genre.
 The earliest fictional treatment of the event I'm aware of (at least the earliest fictional treatment that's up-front about being fiction) is called SAINT JOHNSON, which was written by none other than W.R. Burnett, better known to members of this list for gangster novels like LITTLE CAESAR and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. The name's were changed (Wyatt Earp became Wayt Johnson, for example), but the plot was easily recognizable as deriving from the Earp/Clanton conflict. Indeed, in a foreword to the novel, Burnett admitted as much.

SAINT JOHNSON has been filmed at least four times. The first version, released in 1932, was called LAW AND ORDER and starred Walter Huston as Johnson (now named "Frame" instead of "Wayt") and Harry Carey as a Doc Holliday analog. Huston's son, John, something of an icon among hard-boiled fans for writing and directing the definitive film version of THE MALTESE FALCON, wrote the script. Just as Burnett's novel may have been the first fictional version of the story in prose, LAW AND ORDER, notwithstanding the name changes, may have been the first Wyatt Earp movie.

That same year it was remade as THE BEAST OF THE CITY, with a script co-written by Burnett. Also starring Walter Huston, the setting was updated to modern-day Chicago. Huston was now the incorruptible captain of homicide suddenly elevated to chief of police and ordered to clean out a fictionalized version of the Capone mob, substituting for the frontier-era Clantons.

The LAW AND ORDER title was restored in 1940 and 1955 remakes starring, respectively, Johnny Mack Brown and Ronald Reagan. The Reagan version is less a remake than a sequel, with Johnson leaving Tombstone at the beginning of the film, having tamed the town, and going off to do the same thing in another community.

Loren D. Estleman's version of the battle is called BLOODY SEASON. This is probably the best Earp novel I've ever read, though it should be noted that his depiction of Earp is not particularly sympathetic. It's not UNsympathetic, but it's not totally pro-Earp, either. Estleman's take on Earp is that he never really thought of himself as a law officer, but as a businessman who fell into law enforcement almost by accident. Interestingly, the recent films TOMBSTONE, with Kurt Russell, and WYATT EARP, with Kevin Costner, both have a similar take on Earp.

Robert B. Parker, who'd never written a western before, made the OK Corral shoot-out the subject of his first, GUNMAN'S RHAPSODY. I haven't read it, but I'm told it's a decent retelling of the events leading up to the gunfight, but, oddly, doesn't actually depict the gunfight itself at all.

Why are crime writers particularly attracted to these events? Well, the political elements, the highly organized, almost corporate nature of the lawbreakers, the rivalry between various branches of law enforcement, really make the story seem more like the stuff of urban gangster novels than frontier fiction. The fact that Burnett's book could be so easily filmed as a Prohibition-era gangbuster movie is indicative of this. The voice-over narrator of TOMBSTONE (Robert Mitchum) calls the Clantons "the first example fo organized crime in the US" or something to that effect. That's not really true, but the notion of a Mafia-like "crime family" controlling not only illegal activities but politics, opposed by courageous but deeply flawed law enforcement types has to appeal to writers, and fans, of hard-boiled crime.


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