Not every writer understands that the most important line in any book is the hook – that opening sentence which grabs your attention and makes you eager to read on. Born to the Badge opens with the following line: “Wichita, Kansas, was hell in the making…” and there I went – engrossed for hours.
Given that I haven’t been a fan of westerns, spaghetti westerns, cowboys, sheriffs, or indeed anything else related to the American Wild West since Bonanza left our black and white TV screens, this indeed something. In fact, I may be the perfect person to review this book about that most famous of sheriffs: Wyatt Earp.
Yes. Even I had heard of him and his unlikely sidekick, former dentist turned gambler and informant, Doc Holliday. But this was the slimmest of reasons to stick my hand up to review a book – a whole book – which forms the central part of a trilogy about their lives.
When part two arrived before any sign of parts one or three, I debated if I should defer my immersion into things unknown. And then the first line of Born to the Badge changed all of that. Now – ask me any question – I am somewhat of an armchair expert. And, yes, thanks to Mr Warren, writer, naturalist, canoe champion and teacher of Native American survival skills, I am also a complete convert to the world of cowboys and Indians.
I admit some of the references to women and persons of colour still shocked. But I accept that historical novels are judged by the accuracy with which they portray a figment of time. Successful vignettes naturally include outmoded attitudes and speech; so I guess it’s a case of ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.
Speaking of which, Warren handles the shooting scenes mandatory to any good western with care, making even the most violent of altercations quietly amusing. I suspect this is due to the deliberately droll way in which flint-eyed Wyatt Earp is portrayed as dispatching his duties.
Because when he chooses to - as he mostly does choose to - Warren is able to convey scenes with a cinematic clarity. In this way, I can see the store room lit by the warm glow of a single lantern; and the prairie crossing at night, guided solely by the stars above and the subtle shapes of the land smudged on a distant horizon.
Reviewer: Peta Stevalli
Mark Warren Books, Hardcover edition, $55.50