Rowdy Roy Bean, lovely Lillie Langtry—a fine romance with no kisses.
In calling himself “the Law West of the Pecos,” Roy Bean may have overstated but not by much. It was an anarchic time, those last decades of the 19th century, a time when the law was endlessly malleable, pressed into disparate shapes by Colts, Winchesters and idiosyncratic judges. Bean, saloon keeper extraordinaire and oft-elected Justice of the Peace in Val Verde County, was the very model of a Texas-style “hanging judge,” though probably not quite as lethal as legend purports. He did, however, own a huge, old, only partially domesticated bear named Bruno, employed from time to time—in one bizarre way or another—to implement his unorthodox approach to sentencing. Judge Bean was inordinately famous. Three thousand miles away, in England, so was Lillie Langtry. Born Emilie LeBreton on the pastoral British island of Jersey, she became with breathtaking speed the gorgeous “Jersey Lily,” toast of multiple towns on both sides of the Atlantic. She was an actress, and though never in a class with contemporaries Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt when talent was the measure, her looks compensated, made her for years “an attraction as dependable as the crown jewels.” Judge Bean was besotted with her, wrote passionately to her, papered the walls of his establishment with her photographs, named a town after her and longed for the day she would visit him there. Still, is it in fact a love story? Though they never met, Estleman makes a case.
More anecdotal than novelistic, it’s too slight to rank with his best, but the Estleman hallmark has always been the quality of the prose. After 60 or so books (Alone, 2009, etc.) that remains fresh, flavorful and worth the price.