Based on the legend of a true-life sheriff from Bannock, Montana, in the 1860s, this historical novel vividly recreates and illuminates the turmoil in Henry Plummer’s short life, beginning from the time he headed to the untamed West from Maine in 1851.
Plagued with consumption, Plummer, at age 19, goes to San Francisco for drier air, where he quickly falls into a pattern of gambling, drinking, and finding comfort with women. The city is plagued with murders, crime and corruption and, although he wants justice to prevail, he’s equally quick to pull the trigger when confronted.
At one point, Plummer lands in San Quentin after murdering a man. He pleads self-defense. Managing an early release, he finds work in lawless, violent mining towns, where gold dust theft is rampant and everyone a suspect. Eventually, when Plummer is sheriff in Bannock, he’s targeted for yet another murder.
Perhaps because this is based on a real life, the author packed in enough situations and characters to populate a Dickens novel. Although keenly researched, however, excessive detail and unnecessary detours bog down the story. For example, Plummer helps a young, naive virgin at a bordello find a legitimate job as a seamstress to escape that life. While it shows the character’s softer side, the woman never again figures into the story.
Nonetheless, the book is solidly written when illustrating the dangers of the early West, the plague of vigilantes, poor conditions at San Quentin, struggles among the native population, and the varied plights of women.
The writing style is creative throughout, and the main characters spark with life (although dialogue is minimal). Here is the vivid description of Plummer’s encounter with a former slave: “Her eyes were as big as the bottoms of his grandmother’s finest, most delicate teacups.” Unfortunately, the story’s ending is a bit fanciful.
Overall, this is a largely engaging story that will particularly interest history buffs familiar with and fascinated by Plummer’s legend.