I take my responsibility as an “Early Reviewer” very seriously, so when I obtain a book under such circumstances, I feel an obligation to both the author and the Early Reviewers program to read it through cover-to-cover in order to fairly evaluate it. Absent that strong sense of commitment, I would certainly have abandoned Hornswogglers, Fourflushers & Snake-Oil Salesmen: True Tales of the Old West’s Sleaziest Swindlers, by Matthew P. Mayo, somewhere around page twelve. Instead, I agonizingly forced my way through all of its twenty-two chapters and two hundred seventy-seven pages of character sketches – which unfortunately simply reinforced my first impression.
In fairness to the author, I am probably the wrong audience for a book like this, as reader or reviewer. Still, in fairness to me it is billed as American History – which is why I initially requested it – and the back cover duly claims it as History/US-19th Century. But more importantly, in fairness to actual historians who painstakingly research, analyze, interpret and write books about history, Hornswogglers hardly qualifies as history at all, except perhaps in the very broadest sense in that its content is concerned with the past. This book is written for a popular rather than a scholarly academic audience, but I do not object to that; I commonly read both kinds of histories and am comfortable evaluating each on their respective merits. I might, in general, take exception to the absence of notes, which is sloppy for either kind of work, but in this case that is really the very least complaint a reviewer could raise. To my mind, this is simply a dreadfully bad book on a variety of levels.
Deafening alarm bells went off on the third page of the “Introduction” as Mayo nonchalantly reveals that: “At various points I used poetic license by adding dialogue and supporting characters where firsthand accounts were scarce.” [p xiii] Really??? I must admit a sense of astonishment: this is my first experience with an author of an ostensible work of history who has freely and insouciantly confessed to the manufacture of conversations as well as some of the individuals peopling his chronicle. We have a name for books that fall into this category – historical fiction – a perfectly legitimate genre that has produced magnificent works by the likes of Michael Shaara, Mary Renault and Gore Vidal. But these are emphatically not styled as history.
By way of exception, I will grant a willingness to give a pass to Thucydides, who in his magisterial The History of the Peloponnesian War clearly imagines exchanges between key individuals that he could not have witnessed. But nothing in Hornswogglers comes up even close to the level of the “Melian Dialogue.” In fact, concocted inner-monologues and dialogues characterize at least eighty percent of the narrative, and much of it reeks with simply bad writing, of the “dark and stormy night” variety. Moreover, it lacks all measure of authenticity, especially because it tries so hard to be authentic. Imagine, if you would, the kinds of scripts written for popular “Grade-B” Westerns in the Hollywood of the 1940s, with a character actor such as Walter Brennan cast as a grizzled prospector downing a foamy beer in a saloon while spouting the derivative canned vernacular that was a typical ingredient of an old-fashioned celluloid horse opera – much of Hornswogglers is a poorer echo of that!
And what of the author, Matthew P. Mayo? The back cover bio proudly touts that he “is a Spur Award-winning writer” (an award for writers of Western fiction), and goes on to note that: “He roves the highways and byways of North America . . . in search of high adventure, hot coffee, and tasty whisky.” His website adds only that he is an Eagle Scout and an “on-screen expert for a popular BBC-TV series about lost treasure.” Whether he has had a formal education or any training for writing proper history is conspicuous in its absence. My guess would be not so much.
I suppose there are those who would be entertained by some of the colorful character vignettes in this book, but I would suspect that those like myself concerned with the documentary history of the American West would not be a part of this audience. A “hornswoggler” is apparently defined as a deceiver who dupes a hapless victim: I cannot help but feel that I was hornswoggled into reading this book.