Review by Frank Plowright
Billy the Kid is an interesting historical figure, a name widely known, yet the activities that earned notoriety vague to most, and for a while best known as the unlikely inspiration for a Billy Joel song. That, too, has now elapsed. The name by which history has passed him down was only spread around in the months before his death, and then largely by the press rather than anyone who knew him. Indeed there were several other Billy the Kids, their deeds even more remote.
While Rick Geary’s title refers to death, such is his methodology that the biography of Henry McCarty, brief though it is at 21, is also provided. His criminal career began when he was sixteen, his mother dead, and abandoned by his mother’s partner. By eighteen he was William H. Bonney, involving himself in territorial disputes, during which his killings earned his eventual death sentence, but that was incidental to a primary career of cattle rustling.
Geary’s customary diligent research matches that applied to his books on Victorian murder, but the presentation differs. Billy’s brief life affords little biographical detail, and his acquaintanceships were similarly short, so Geary uses fewer panels than usual, rarely exceeding three on a page, and more often than in any other book he supplies full page illustrations. Perhaps Billy’s larger than life terminal days merit such a cinematic presentation. Certainly much of his fame can be attributed to a long publicly witnessed performance in the final stages of an escape, during which he frequently addressed the gathered crowd using a balcony as a pulpit.
It is a brief story, and a portion ripe for expansion has deliberately been restricted to a mention in passing as Geary self-published a separate book on The Lincoln County War, the territorial dispute noted earlier. After Billy’s death Geary acknowledges the conflicting superimposed personalities he’s come to assume, and there’s really little to indicate the truth of them. Was he a charismatic youngster who charmed the righteous into helping him, or a callous killer who held them in a grip of fear? Without time travel we’ll never know.
Is there a book by Geary that isn’t fascinating and involving? If so, it’s not this one.