Gunman’s Rhapsody

Author: Robert B. Parker
Published: 2001

Mood: If you want to basically relive the movie Tombstone in paperback form but minus the awesomeness of Val Kilmer’s Holliday.

Gunman’s Rhapsody is a Western novel about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral – a place and time that’s right up my alley. 

  • Fun Fact: The gunfight didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral. It happened in an alley and small lot next to a photography studio, several doors down from the rear entrance to the corral.

My personal fascination with the people and events of 1881 Tombstone goes way back… all the way back to the 1993 release of the movie Tombstone (I know, how original). 

That movie blew my prepubescent mind. And rather than believe everything its sexy, moustachioed heroes and bad guys showed me, I became a connoisseur of all things Old West. I wanted to know the FACTS. 

But Old West facts are often shaky at best. Whatever the source, there’s a 50/50 chance it’s a lie. 

People lied in letters to their relatives to ease worry, or to make themselves sound successful. Legal records like births, deaths, and marriages were riddled with inaccuracies. The same is true of employment records and travel documents – partly because so many people didn’t know how to spell their own names. Newspapers fibbed to sell copies. Court rulings could be swayed. People like Wild Bill Hickok exaggerated their histories so much over the years that by the time they wrote memoirs, the stories were a tangled web of lies that the authors had come to believe.

That’s why I like Western fiction. It’s not pretending to be the facts. So when I read a modern novel about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, I expect the story to bring something new to the table.

Gunman’s Rhapsody does not. 

Gunman’s Rhapsody is a story about the people and events synonymous with the name ‘Tombstone’. It’s a third-person narrative told mostly from Wyatt Earp’s perspective, although author Parker occasionally throws the thoughts of other characters into the mix.

The gang’s all here. You’ve got Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, the Clantons, the McLaurys, Curley Bill, Johnny Ringo, Johnny Behan, almost ALL of the Earp men (including James and Warren), the Earp women (Allie and Mattie), and Josie Marcus. 

If you know the story of the events before, during, and after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, you’ve basically already read this book. I wish I could say there’s something new and exciting here worth a read, but that would be another lie. 

It’s not a BAD book – it’s well-written, and I definitely enjoyed that it stuck pretty close to the facts.

Because that’s the thing with writing stories about real people and events. You can’t just stray a little distance from the truth, otherwise it comes off like you did half-assed research. You need to either go WAY THE F*CK out there, like Emma Bull’s fantastical Territory (Wyatt Earp as a dark sorcerer!), or you need to tell it like it was.

And at that point, it’s more like narrative non-fiction. That’s what Gunman’s Rhapsody really is. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

This was my third time around reading a Robert B. Parker Western novel, and I obviously liked the first two enough to try a third helping. 

  • I read Appaloosa after watching the movie Appaloosa, driven by a burning need to know if Renée Zellweger’s character was any more palatable in the book (she wasn’t, but the book was still excellent)
  • I then picked up a library copy of the sequel, Resolution; sequels have a tough task, recreating the power of the original and fans waiting for the story to fail, but Resolution did a good job  

Parker writes this easygoing dialogue that doesn’t hinder your brain and keeps you flipping pages. It’s perfect for Westerns, with all those rugged men of few words. This is 100% true for the dialogue between the Earps, and the Cowboys. 

I particularly liked that Parker’s retelling shows a mutual respect between the Earps, Ringo, and Curley Bill. It’s a similar concept to Appaloosa (the book), where men with similar hobbies and well-matched gunfighting skills can appreciate each other, until they don’t. 

The only major beef I have with Gunman’s Rhapsody is that Parker didn’t change up that style for Doc Holliday

Doesn’t matter which biography or story you read, it’s widely agreed upon that John Henry Holliday was a highly educated and well-spoken man. On top of that, he was raised by his mama and retained genteel Southern manners among friends.

I could have accepted the character of Doc as a mean, angry, abusive drunk (pretty much all he is in this book) if he still sounded like Doc F*cking Holliday. I mean, Bat Masterson always described him as a giant dick, so it’s a legitimate take on his personality. But there’s no difference in this book between Doc’s manner of speech and that of other characters. No literary references, no Latin or poetry, and he never even refers to people in a formal manner.

Unforgivable.

illustration of a fancy moustache

Doc disappointment aside, Gunman’s Rhapsody is a quick read that won’t disappoint if you just enjoy Parker’s writing, or stories about Tombstone. 

If you want some seriously rich narrative fiction about Doc and the Earps, I recommend Doc and Epitaph, both by Mary Doria Russell. But if you just want a slightly more detailed story than the movie Tombstone, you bore me but hey, this book’s for you!