Chief of Thieves: A Novel. By Steven W. Kohlhagen. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2015. 370.
My first encounter with Steven W. Kohlhagen‘s work was when I reviewed hist first novel Where They Bury You here. His new book (sent by Sunstone Press), Chief of Thieves, picks up with the lives of Lily and Gus Smoot after Where They Bury You as they try to fulfill their dream of starting a ranch in the Washington Territory. This is during the turbulent 1860s and 70s on the frontier. Natives are being displaced and in turn displacing ranchers. The railroad is being built, towns are springing up and lawful and lawless characters are crisscrossing the west. It is against this Zane Grey like backdrop that Kohlhagen spins his tale.
Much like Where They Bury You, Chief of Thieves is a fun read that will keep you entertained. He tells a fast paced story and develops life like characters that you will want to see succeed.
The books works well as historical fiction, but there are two areas that need to be clarified as historical fiction. In chapter 14 we are provided with a scene that recounts the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House. “They stepped together out on to the court house steps” and “Inside the court house” gives the impression that the surrender actually took place in the court house. The truth is (and it is stranger than fiction) is that the surrender actually took place in the living room of one Wilmer McLean. This is the same Wilmer McLean who owned a home in Manassas Virginia which was used as a Confederate headquarters while the fighting raged on part of the McLean farm. In many ways the war in the East started and ended at a McLean property! You can read more about the surrender here.
The second case of artistic liberty comes in regard to Custer and the battle of Gettysburg. In a conversation with an ex-Confederate soldier the soldier tells Custer, “We believed if it weren’t for you, our support of Pickett would’ve carried the day.” In other places Custer is referred to as “a hero of Gettysburg” and that his actions helped turn back the confederate tide. This simply over inflates Custer’s participation in the battle. On the afternoon of July 3, three miles east of the town, Custer was part of a cavalry force that clashed with Confederate cavalry on the farm of John Rummell. The overall division commander was David M. Gregg. Though Custer did lead a counterattack, overall Stuart suffered less than 5% casualties and the fight only lasted for about an hour.1
Artistic license aside, Chief of Thieves is a fun read and I do recommend it, especially if you are a fan of fast paced Westerns.
1Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 429-430.