THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

THE BRANCH AND THE SCAFFOLD: A Novel of Judge Parker by Loren D. Estleman

I stumbled onto Loren D. Estleman years ago when I checked out "This Old Bill" from my local library. I had never heard of the author but since the book was a fictional treatment of Buffalo Bill, I couldn't resist it. I followed up that one by quickly reading two more of his historical westerns: "Aces & Eights" (Wild Bill Hickok) and "Bloody Season" (the Earps). By then Estleman had become one of my favorite authors of western fiction.

He is not only a prolific writer, but also a somewhat unusual one, in that he specializes in two genres: westerns (especially historical westerns about real people) and crime novels. Since the appearance of his first novel in 1976, he has now written 40 crime novels, 24 westerns, two works of non-fiction, and three short story collections (one western and two crime). If you are keeping score that is 69 books in 34 years!

In "The Branch and the Scaffold" Estleman covers the same ground as the late Douglas C. Jones, who also specialized in historical westerns (and a favorite writer). It is the story of Judge Isaac Parker, the so-called "hanging judge," who battled to bring law and order to the Western Arkansas District and the Indian Nations (later Oklahoma Territory). It is an episodic novel that does not include a single fictional character. The characters, even the minor ones, were real people. That was not the case in his other historical westerns. In those stories, he created fictional characters in order to enliven the historical events.

Judge Isaac Parker
"The Branch and the Scaffold" is not my favorite Estleman novel. That may be because I have read much about the people and the events that are covered and since Estleman does nothing to embellish the story -- it reads almost like a work of history rather than a work of fiction -- and I am already familiar with that history.

But to those who do not know much about the life and times of Judge Parker and the lawmen who rode for him or the famous and infamous outlaws they brought to justice, the novel will be both entertaining and informative.


Loren D. Estleman

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