Review of To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West and looking for your next book to read, I would seriously recommend To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner. This book tells the joint story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot him dead in a house in Fort Sumner New Mexico one night in 1881. I have always enjoyed tales of the Wild West, but didn’t really know too much about the back story to either Billy the Kid of Pat Garrett. All I really knew was that myth and legend shrouds the backstory to both of these men. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid that was written by Pat Garrett himself as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing.

The first few pages of the book are dedicated to other reviews the book has been given. All of these are positive, and at times a little dramatic sounding, so I must admit this gave me some reservations. However, I must admit that not long into the book, I felt I must agree with them. This book really has been one of the best I’ve read this year. The writing style was easy going and action packed, but in a concise way. Whilst this book is a biography, this writing style really did make me feel like I was reading a fiction book, rather than a history book. It certainly meant that the book was very hard to put down. In many ways, it felt as if this book transported the reader right into the middle of the events being described.

I feel I have learnt a lot about what made both men tick, but in a very entertaining and thrilling way. The double narrative could have easily become confusing for the reader, but in fact it was the opposite. It was done in a way that described the outlaw and the lawman not just as individuals, but how their paths crossed at various points along the way. I feel that whether or not the reader knew the outcome of Garrett shooting the Kid, everything does culminate towards that. I had read previously about what happened during the Kid’s death, but had found descriptions of it very confusing. However, I feel the author dealt with what was a confusing event in a very commendable way that made it easy to understand with previous versions I had read. Just taking this example alone does make me applaud the writing style, even though as previously mentioned, it is written well throughout.

The good research and time gone into this topic is evident. Whilst it does have the tone of a fiction book, there are always good references to works by other historians, witnesses who had known Pat and the Kid, and newspapers from the time. By using all of these sources, it does give a well rounded approach to the topic, whilst also giving a wider context to lawless New Mexico, and the Wild West as a whole. I did particularly like the addition of what happened to Pat Garrett after he had killed Billy the Kid. As this book suggests, Garrett hated the fact he was known across America as the one who killed the Kid. By adding these extra facts both before and after Pat knew the Kid, it felt right to respect Pat’s wishes and added to his character. The goes for the exploration of the early life of Billy the Kid. Whilst of course his level of criminality can’t be justified, it goes towards explaining how his life had led him to that point.

The only thing that initially confused me a little was that the first chapter deals with when Pat Garrett first arrested Billy the Kid and others and attempted to take them on a train to meet their justice. This resulted in a shootout and riot with locals who wanted one of the criminals, not Billy the Kid. After reading the rest of the book, the author’s choice to put this in the first chapter makes sense as it places the relationship Garrett and the Kid had straight into the reader’s mind, before the author goes into more detail about the background of both characters.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, whether they have an interest in the Wild West or not. It’s journalistic writing style is so easy to read and helps what is a difficult topic in places, in terms of the violence used by the criminals it mentions, but also as the life of Billy the Kid has become very sensationalised in the years since his death, easier to digest. There are many books on the Wild West out there and I genuinely feel that this is one of the best there is. As one of the reviews from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper suggests “A superbly written story, utterly enthralling and unforgettable”. I would definitely reiterate that statement.

Just so you are aware, an updated edition for the tenth anniversary of this book was published in 2020. I am not sure what updates have been introduced in that version as I was reading the original 2010 one, but if you manage to get your hands on a copy, you’ll have to let me know if there are any differences.

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