The Ballad of Black Bart

Written by Loren D. Estleman
Review by Thomas j. Howley

Charles Boles, aka Black Bart, is a genuine and fascinating historical character from America’s Western history in the late 1880s. And “character” is not an exaggeration in Black Bart’s case. As with most of the Californians of that time, he is born in the East and comes to seek his fortune during the great rush, leaving behind a small family in the Midwest. Again, as with most, Charles does not succeed in finding his fortune under the ground. He learns to disdain the mega-corporation of the day, Wells Fargo. He decides life will be easier by simply robbing that company’s stagecoaches, employing ingenuity, an unloaded shotgun, a bit of poetry and his own two feet instead of riding on a horse. His nemesis is Wells Fargo detective chief James B. Hume. Bart becomes Hume’s “Moby Dick,” and the legend lavishly unfolds.

Estleman, a well-established and award-winning author, is a master wordsmith who captures the feel, prose and ambience of the period flawlessly. He relates a particular danger associated with visiting local saloons as the possibility of acquiring “crabs as big as snails in a French restaurant” and an unfortunate young woman who has the “face of a sheep.” Along the way the author provides intricate, seemingly primitive but fascinating details of frontier detective craft. The upbringing and background of the two adversaries are well described, including Boles’ pain and regret at abandoning his family years earlier. Here, Estleman has raised Black Bart perhaps to even greater stature than classic American bad guys like Billy the Kid and Jesse James. In any age, this short but exceedingly well written novel is exactly what a realistic historical crime story should be. Strongly recommended.