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After writing one of the best books on Dashiell Hammett, The Lost Detective, Nathan Ward tackled the life of a writer/detective from a previous generation. Charles Siringo spent most of the era we know as the wild west as a cowboy, who trailed cattle, and later as a Pinkerton detective who trailed outlaws. He wrote about both experiences and other in books that chronicled his life. Ward's biography, Son Of The Old, follows his the relationship he had to his times and the influence on his work. Nathan was kind enough to be interviewed about his book and shed a little more light o Charlie.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: What set you on Charles Siringo for a subject?

NATHAN WARD:  I had first considered doing a book on Emmett Dalton (and still could), as he also went from the real West to young Hollywood working on early Westerns. But my editor, George Gibson, pointed out that Charlie had seen much more of the West, both in history witnessed and miles logged on horseback. He also had known more bold name outlaws (working undercover as a cowboy detective) than the reformed bank robber Dalton, whose rowdy career ended when he was shot off his horse at 19.

S.M.: What surprised me about Texas Cowboy and Cowboy Detectives was how readable they are. How do you attribute this to someone with little education and training before he picked up the pen?

N.W.: So much scholarship is taken up with discussions of whether he really might have seen as much as he claimed, and very little mention is made of what a truly fine American writer he is, a step below Twain, but doing the same thing: making a new literature out of the American regional slang he encountered. In fact, his classic Texas Cowboy, the first published cowboy memoir, appeared the same year as Huck Finn, 1886. Both men seem to have been natural storytellers to start with, and very funny in person, it seems. Siringo had a runty charm and gift for making friends that often kept him alive, and his prose style has absolute authority that no writing instructor could have given him.

S.M.: What do you think his major strength as a writer was?

N.W.: As a writer he was my travel guide through the West from the invention of longhorn cattle ranching to the early cowtowns and the outlaw era chasing Butch Cassidy and others. And as with any travel guide you spend some time with, I learned what typically to accept and what to look up later in my room. As I have said, Charlie’s first-hand experiences are surprisingly checkable and accurate. He stretched things mostly when it was a friend’s story he folded into the narrative. Those stories needed his improving, in the great campfire tradition.

S.M.: This book has a more epic feel than Becoming Dashiell Hammett, being about the subject's time he lived in as well as himself. How did you come upon your approach to the story?

N.W.: The Hammett book was not trying to be a full biography but to fill a need that no Hammett book had explained: What kind of detective had he been and how did he get from there to inventing the American Private Detective novel as we know it? I figured Lillian Hellman had turned him into a hard-drinking mentor figure in her books, and had created the great tiresome question of Why did he stop writing? She was only present for his writing his last published novel, The Thin Man. I was more interested in why he wrote to begin with, and why we should care about him.

Siringo, by contrast, went in the other direction, from writer to detective, and was a detective much longer than Hammett got to be, stopped by influenza and then Tuberculosis. My argument is that the American hardboiled detective stories of the 1920s are really the cowboy story placed in an urban setting: a mysterious stranger wanders into a town that needs his help ridding it of the criminals holding the town hostage. He does his job and moves on with a tip of his hat. Charlie almost physically brought the genres together, as a detective with serious cowboy skills when he needed them on a case.

S.M.: What was your take away from the old west, seeing it through Siringo's perspective?

N.W.: What struck me again and again as Charlie wandered the West, was how he liked almost everyone he encountered as long as they weren’t unkind to a horse. He will quote ugly slurs used by people he meets, but seems able to befriend almost anyone, which is lucky in a place that sounds as incredibly lonely as much of the frontier seemed to be. He also saw in the outlaw gangs he infiltrated for his Pinkerton job young violent men not unlike himself, and often he would befriend them long enough to cheer when they got let off by a judge. It was sad but interesting to watch his Pinkerton work darken as the West changed, and the jobs chasing bank robbers gave way to work as a labor spy for new mining companies.

S.M.: Do you have a subject for a book you're pursuing?

.N.W.: At the moment, I’m writing about Curley the Crow, Custer’s scout who was said to be the last man from the Army side to see him alive, escaping just before the Battle at Little Bighorn. Curley’s lack of English allowed journalists to write romantic accounts of his harrowing escapes and make him a witness to Custer’s noble last stand, which is still with us. One of the men who exploited him was a con artist imposter who toured the West for a decade as Curley, giving speeches about his survival and selling fake land plots wearing a wig and bronze makeup. The tragedy of the Crows, who backed the American army against their enemies the Lakota and Cheyenne and lost, I think is a side of the Plains wars and battle for the Black Hills that is under-explored.


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