Author: Matt Braun
Mood: If life has been way too emotional lately and you want a well-written Western book that will tell you a story without putting you through any strong feelings.
What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘Dodge City’?
- Cowboys & shootouts
- Loose women
- All of the above
When I bought the book Dodge City, NONE OF MY EXPECTATIONS included it being about lawyers. Somehow I managed to pick up the only book about Dodge City that focuses entirely on its judicial system and politics.
This was not what I wanted or needed in my life.
But fun fact about me – I’ve taken two law courses, with final grades of 96 and 98%. I’m actually weirdly into some aspects of law. So as much as I wanted to be annoyed with this book’s angle, I got into it.
I still wished it was primarily about cowboys, shootouts, and loose women. But Matt Braun is a really good writer, and this story is still WAY F*CKING BETTER better than the Errol Flynn movie Dodge City.
Dodge City follows a comfortable pattern: each chapter starts with a new court case, and by the end of the chapter there’s a verdict. It’s more like a series of short stories starring the same lead character. The trials take place between January and December 1878, so it’s kind of a ‘year in the life of Dodge City law’.
Harry Gryden is a staunch Democrat (ie. Republican, which still confuses me), and a criminal defense lawyer who enjoys the challenge of defending “horse thieves, murderers, and whorehouse madams.”
Gryden is actually exactly the kind of person I’d want to hang out with in the Old West. He gambles, he gives uptight people a hard time, and he’s fiercely loyal to his sweetheart Belle, the star of the Comique Variety Theatre.
But most importantly, he’s highly intelligent and a total boss at law.
His opponent is Mike Sutton, “Rabid Republican.” This prosecutor is equally good at law, but you don’t like him for it. Where Gryden’s people are ranchers and the ‘sporting crowd’ of Dodge City’s nefarious South Side, Sutton keeps company with churchgoing townsfolk, farmers, and prohibitionists.
The two men draw big crowds whenever they face off in court, and by the end of the year they’re also rivals for county attorney. But nothing too crazy happens, because despite the presence of cowboys, shootouts, loose women, and general lawlessness in these chapters – the book isn’t about what comes BEFORE the arrests, it’s about the lawyers and hearings.
Dodge City shows that Matt Braun has clearly done ample research about the Old West. This guy is masterful at putting you in the place and time through subtly, yet carefully, weaving historical accuracy into prose. The story flows easily through Braun’s strong writing into a flawless back-and-forth between description and dialogue.
You do get occasional tastes of life outside the courtroom, like when Gryden attends horse races and shooting contests, or enjoys evenings playing poker at saloons in the South Side.
You also get to meet Dodge City legends like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Masterson brothers, as supporting characters in the legal scene.
On the flipside, the book quickly becomes formulaic – you know each chapter will start with a little narrative that sets the stage for how and why the case came across Gryden’s desk. And you know it will end with either Gryden or Sutton winning the case.
There isn’t one key trial that’s packed with tension, or one really bad guy. It’s not building toward anything in particular. Gryden can’t stand Sutton, but they still respect each other’s law game.
With all of that said, I will 100% read more by Matt Braun. This is some of the highest quality fiction I’ve ever read by a popular Western author. If you enjoy the legal side of the Old West, this is one to read.
But if you’re looking for a more traditional Western novel with lots of action and a tense linear story that gallops toward a riveting conclusion, this probably isn’t for you.