In Ragtime Cowboys by Loren Estleman, Wyatt Earp employs two ex-Pinkerton agents, Charles A. Siringo and Dashiell Hammett, to track down the horse thief who stole his race horse, Spirit Dancer. Siringo and Hammett trail the purported horse thief to Beauty Ranch, the late Jack London’s ranch located in The Valley of the Moon, in a thriller that adroitly combines elements of mystery, western and literary fiction in the latest of Estleman’s 70+ novels.
Set in the early 1920s, during the era of Prohibition, the main protagonist of Ragtime Cowboys is Charles A. Siringo, who now resides in Los Angeles. He has seen better days when he was younger, even having had run-ins with outlaws such as Billy the Kid in his service as a Pinkerton agent. However, he still retains many of his old skills, though he has pent most of the past few years in retirement, writing Western novels.
Siringo was working on one of his novels, typing away on a rainy night with rain leaking through several holes in his rusty tin roof, when Wyatt Earp knocks on his door. Siringo lets him in, though he has never really cared for any of the Earp brothers. Wyatt, of all of them, seems to Siringo to be the one who most lacks a sense of humor.
Over drinks of moonshine, which Siringo provides, Wyatt Earp relates that his two-year-old race horse, Spirit Dancer, was stolen. He believes one of his old ranch hands, Abner Butterfield, was paid off to look the other way, allowing someone to steal his horse. He offers Charles A. Siringo $500 to take on the job, saying that he has also hired another ex-Pinkerton agent already, Dashiell Hammett, who writes mystery novels. Siringo is supposed to meet up with Hammett in San Francisco, where they will join forces to track down the culprit(s) behind the theft of Earp’s horse.
During the time period that Ragtime Cowboys is set, Hollywood is still called Hollywoodland. That is what the sign on a hill calls it, that is pictured on the cover of Estleman’s book (the “land” part was removed in 1949). That is where Siringo climbs up, along with his weapons, to practice his shooting skills. He has a rough time, as his heart “skipped every fourth beat,” but he eventually makes it up the hill, eats a bean sandwich and practices his shooting skills.
Siringo is dissatisfied with the results, thinking to himself “a man was reluctant to acknowledge he’d lost ground.” As Estleman writes:
It wasn’t his eyes, just rust. Rust and the old-man shakes and too much thinking. You could scrape off the first through practice and conquer the second with determination, but when the bump of intelligence grew so big it got in the way of your target, there wasn’t much you could do about it except drink, and that would put a big dent in the travel expenses.
At first, neither Siringo nor the consumptive Hammett knows what to make of the other. They are similar in some ways, both having been Pinkerton agents, tracking down lawmen and both now being authors and hard drinkers; but, their political views are very different, Siringo being a capitalist and Hammett, who voted for Eugene V. Debs, leaning more towards being a “Marxist.”
In San Francisco, the ex-Pinkertons find that they are under surveillance. Siringo and Hammett have gotten themselves in over their heads, in a plot that also involves a conspiracy masterminded by the notorious and powerful Joseph P. Kennedy. There are people who do not want Siringo and Hammett to meddle any further and uncover the truth about things that they would rather stay hidden. They will stop at nothing, even killing Siringo and Hammett, to get them to stop trying to find the whereabouts of Earp’s horse and learning more about why President Harding is so interested in oil reserves located underground in Teapot Dome, Wyoming.
Ragtime Cowboys by Loren Estleman showcases the author’s talents and proves that he is still at the top of his game. He has written a cracking good plot combining elements of the genres of mystery, western and literary fiction, to create one of his best novels to date. Ragtime Cowboys is a novel that is impossible to put down until the very end. It is a book that will keep readers up late into the night reading it. Highly recommended to any fans of mysteries, westerns and excellent writing, period.
Written By Douglas Cobb