Arts & Events

Black Hats: A Novel of Earp and Capone

By Joe Kemkes
Friday December 29, 2006

I always liked the guys in the black hats—the “bad guys”—when I went to the cowboy movies as a kid. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance: talk about grabbin’ for the gusto—these guys had it goin’ eight ways ‘til Sunday. 

Then the Black Hats started turning up on the heads of urban hoods: Vito Carleone, Al “Scarface” Capone and all the bad boys on those mean, mean streets. Black Hat, Black Heart, Black Hand. 

Sometime between Jesse James’ last dance and Al Capone’s rise in the mob, Sheriff Wyatt Earp, age 72, left Tombstone, Ariz., and settled in Manhattan to deal cards in a speakeasy. Al Capone, in his 20s, was a bartender in Brooklyn and was starting to run with the mob. What if their paths had crossed? 

Patrick Culhane (pen name for Max Allan Collins, who also wrote Road to Peridtion) entertains this “what if” proposition in his fictionalized tale Black Hats: A Novel of Wyatt Earp and Al Capone.  

Hats is set during Prohibition when there was big money to be made on illegal liquor. Capone heard about a stash of 3,000 cases of booze secreted in a Manhattan warehouse and decided to steal it. The owner hired Earp and Bat Masterson to guard the warehouse and to make weekly deliveries of the booze to his club. When Capone finally finds out where the stash is hidden, this is how Culhane brings the suspense to a climax: 


When the bald gunner rounded the corner, still spraying slugs, Bat Masterson took aim and fired twice, and the guy, not hit but startled, pulled back, letting up on the trigger. Bat had him now, and he fired ... only he didn’t fire, he squeezed the trigger, all right, but the hammer fell on an empty chamber. He was out. “Even little guns need bullets,” the machine gunner said, his eyes wild, his smile rabid-animal crazed. The son of a bitch was laughing when he fired ... only he didn’t fire, either, his trigger bringing only clicks. He was out, too. Bat was scrambling to reload when he heard the footsteps. Wyatt’s steady footsteps. “Big gun”, Wyatt said. “Big but empty.” The thunder of Wyatt’s long-barrel .45 rivaled anything the sky could summons and its impact shattered the bald head like a melon. Bat’s eyes went to Wyatt. “What’s that?” “What?” “On your ear?” Wyatt touched his left lobe. His fingers bought back blood. “A little graze. Bat roared with laughter. “Don’t tell me after all these years, you finally took a bullet!” Wyatt raised a blood-dabbed finger in warning. “Not a word.” (Pages 250-51)  


Using the glittering backdrop of showgirls and cafe society, gangsters and gamblers, Black Hats convincingly portrays an eerily plausible story of a legendary sheriff’s last stand against the man who went on to become Public Enemy #1. At bookstores March 27, 2007.