Since publishing his first novel, in 1976, the prolific author has won five Spur Awards in the western genre and four Shamus Awards for his mysteries. His sixty-fifth book zeroes in on the real-life obsession of Judge Roy Bean—one of nineteenth-century Texas’s most colorful jurists—with the British actress Lillie Langtry. Roy & Lillie: A Love Story is an entertaining fiction that re-creates the long-distance flirtation between the English beauty and the man whose fame as the Law West of the Pecos survives to this day. Estleman is completing the twentieth volume in his Amos Walker detective series from his Michigan home, where he lives with his wife, Deborah Morgan.
Judge Roy Bean’s life hasn’t suffered from lack of attention. What’s new about Roy & Lillie? Every biography and biopic about Bean or Langtry presents the other person as a footnote. Roy & Lillie tells their complete story—fictively enhanced with dialogue history never recorded, thoughts a novelist can only guess at, and letters whose contents can’t be verified because the correspondence no longer exists.
How closely does the Law West of the Pecos myth hew to the reality of Bean’s life? It’s a popular misconception that Bean was a self-proclaimed judge. He was appointed to the position and later reinstated by popular vote. Many of his decisions were based on common sense, although some of his sentences were certainly unorthodox. As for his frequent use of the law to attain his own ends, centuries of revered leaders were guilty of the same or worse. He was a crook, a bigot, and a killer, but in our political system that hardly disqualifies him from holding public office.
What inspired Bean’s long-distance admiration of Langtry? No one seems to know, which is always a lucky break for the writer of historical fiction. I portray him as intrigued by her luminous image on an ambrotype—a photographic reproduction on glass popular during the nineteenth century—that fell into his hands. Most of my own obsessions began with a chance encounter like that, so it seemed plausible in Roy’s case.
Wikipedia says Langtry, Texas—where Bean dispensed justice from his saloon, the Jersey Lilly—was named for George Langtry, a railroad supervisor. But your novel accepts Bean’s claim that he renamed the town for the British actress. Poetic license? Both stories have their champions and detractors. One of the neat things about writing historical fiction is that I get to run with the more colorful one. The business of the novel is truth, not fact; often the apocryphal story gets to the core of the subject better than the authentic record.
Tell us about Lillie’s eventual trip to Langtry to visit Bean. Sadly, based on Lillie’s own account in her autobiography, Judge Bean died of what appears to have been a stroke while preparing for her visit. She missed him by a matter of months. This lent a new layer of poignancy to their love story: Its success lies in the fact that they never met.
You work in both the western and contemporary mystery genres. What are the similarities and differences in your approach to each? Both depend on suspense to drive the action. There is a simplicity to a nineteenth-century story I enjoy: having a man walk into a saloon and order a steak and a bottle without having to worry about his cholesterol and his liver. But I also look forward to tackling the complex strands of twenty-first-century society. I call the switch “literary crop rotation”: I plow and plant one field while the other lies fallow, collecting nutrients for the next planting. Forge, $24.99