Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale (book review).

‘Black Hat Jack’ is a novella by Joe R Lansdale and tells a tale about cowboy Nat Love, also known as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ and his black huntsman partner, Black Hat Jack, so called because, as he puts it: ‘My hat is black and my name is Jack.‘ This is dime-store western fiction, though with one important difference, it has a black protagonist.


Nat Love is a well-known figure in western lore, with a few people claiming to have been him. He published his memoirs entitled “Life And Adventures Of Nat Love, Better Known In The Cattle Country As ‘Deadwood Dick'” in 1907. The account is a somewhat elaborate account of Nat’s journey from slavery to cowboy. Winning shooting competitions and drinking with Billy the Kid.

Western fiction, a cornerstone of American publishing since the nineteenth century, more often than not relied on fictionalised accounts of famous figures in the west like Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, etc. The truth of the west was somewhat different, with western novels choosing exaggeration over accuracy. It also ignored the role that many black people had on the frontier. Following the American Civil War, a number of freed men went west where they were treated more fairly than in the east ‘even by the Yankees‘ says Nat.

Lansdale is therefore looking to redress the balance with this novella and a forthcoming novel. ‘Black Hat Jack’ mainly concerns the defence of Adobe Walls against an attack by the Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa. When Nat and Jack ride into town, having found a murdered buffalo hunter pegged out in the wilderness, they know the threat of attack is near. Then, after visiting Adobe Walls saloon, they find themselves holed-up in a trading post with the rest of the town facing an onslaught of several hundred native American warriors.

Lansdale plays with the old west clichés of impossible rifle shots, town drunks and even a beautiful woman who knows how to handle a gun. Interestingly, he also adds in a Yankee who’s gone to live with the Native Americans, but has now been thrown out and cast behind Adobe Walls among white folks again. Nat and Jack are the stars of the show though, shooting better, fighting harder and cussing nastier than any of the others. There’s a lot of fun to be had from some of the dialogue, though be warned there is a fair bit of profanity.

I enjoyed ‘Black Hat Jack’, though short it tells an action-packed story well. Nat is a likeable character but you should take his testimony with a pinch of salt. At the novella’s end, Lansdale makes clear that some of the events described did happen, though not necessarily in the manner that the book portrays them.

‘Black Hat Jack’ is recommended if you’re a fan of westerns or action movies. I found myself wanting more so am looking forward to Haldeman’s novel. In the meantime, given the length of this piece, I would recommend it, whetting your appetite for Nat Love’s next adventure.

John Rivers

September 2014

(pub: Subterranean Press. 121 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-677-9)

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