Having shut down the whiskey, music, and fast cars of his superb industrial Detroit quintet with 1999’s Thunder City, stylist Estleman returns with a historical western in mirror-smooth mahogany prose.
This seventh deputy US marshal Page Murdock installment picks up where 2000’s White Desert left off. With a more densely ambitious style and dialogue that rings tones from the overblown bittersweet rhetoric of the day, it opens in Montana, then sinks into the opium-beclouded, bullet-zinging sinfest of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast with pages indebted to Herbert Asbury’s 1933 classic, The Barbary Coast. This federal lawman, working out of Helena, is seen by many as a killer hired by Washington to shrink the ranks of desperadoes. It’s now 20 years since the Civil War, but legions following the Sons of the Confederacy (led perhaps by the Honorable D.W. Wheelock, city alderman and captain in the San Francisco fire brigade) still plan on secession for the 13 Confederate states. Bound for Frisco on a train also bearing General US Grant, Murdock hires Edward Anderson Beecher—a railroad porter and ex-black cavalryman—as deputy to guard his back. When two assassins, each bearing a 20-dollar gold double eagle, attempt to kill Murdock, Beecher saves him. Here, the amusing dialogue turns dizzy with thieves’ jargon in Port Hazard (San Francisco), talk that demands subtitles. But it’s with the descent into Chinatown that unthinking evil turns thick as liquid opium, with blood geysering from beheaded bad guys. As for Bella Union’s melodeon section: “Cabbage roses exploded on burgundy runners in the aisles. Laurels of gold leaf encircled a coffered ceiling with a Greek Bacchanal enshrined in stained glass in the center, lighted from above so that the chubby nymphs’ nipples and the blubbery lips of the bloated male gods and demigods glittered like rubies.”
Louis L’Amour looks down with envy.