Oakley Hall’s Ambrose Bierce series is based on the real-life Bierce, perhaps most famously known of as the author of The Devil’s Dictionary presenting sardonic word definitions. Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots is a rip-roarin’ Western mystery sure to please those already hooked on the series and gain new adherents with its terse prose, succinct wit, and plot twists aplenty.
This tale starts off with Ambrose in a self-imposed sort of exile at one of his favorite hotels in Auburn, California. His good friend, fellow reporter Tom Redmond of the San Francisco Examiner, has come to visit and tell him his plans to interview the famous outlaw Oswald (Oz) Bird, a.k.a. the Buzzard. Tom is an excellent foil to Ambrose, akin to Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. Watson or Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin. He does much of the leg-work for Ambrose when they have ongoing investigations, which are generally undertaken at the behest of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the Examiner.
Bird has just been released from jail, and Tom Redmond is taken blindfolded to see him. Asked why he robbed a bank shortly after his release, Bird states that: “When you gets out of the hoosegow, you need some money to make a start.” During the interview, Tom learns that Bird has some old scores to settle - against the South Pacific Railroad and its operator, Arliff K. Potter, and one Colonel Studely, a Wild West Show owner who fell in with Bird’s divorced wife, Dora Pratt, when he was in jail. Dora, the titular Ace of Shoots, is a sharpshooter similar to Annie Oakley and tutored under Bird’s gentle guidance.
The author maintains a sardonic sense of humor that Bierce himself would surely be proud of if he were around today. In The Ace of Shoots, Bierce dubs Dora with another moniker: “Little Miss Nevermiss.” She has become close friends with members of the Wild West Show like Billy Buttons, Short Bear, Enrique Garza, and Darkie Duncan, all of whom protect her like a Praetorian guard. When the show comes to town and Colonel Studely is shot in the back during a parade through the streets of San Francisco, it appears to be an open-and shut case: Oswald Bird threatened Colonel Studely and Arliff Potter, so he must be the killer.
Of course, things aren’t as pat as all that. Plenty of others have a strong motive to have wanted Studely dead, because he was not a very nice person at all. He was an adherent of the early “science” of eugenics, putting down Billy Button’s three-legged dog with a bullet because he was less than perfect. A bigot, he thought of Short Bear and Darkie Duncan as inferior to him. His baby daughter with Dora, Evalina, was born with birth defects and died mysteriously at the age of two. So, who DID kill Studely? The plot twists further with the death of Arliff Potter, making the Sheriff and many others think it just had to be Oswald Bird’s doing.
The Ace of Shoots is full of red herrings and clever twist and turns, weaving together such disparate topics as eugenics, the infamous Vigilante Committees, bare-knuckle boxing, the emergence of feminism, and much more. There’s even time enough for a brief interlude between Bierce and an actress from “Our American Cousin,” a play passing through town - the play which Abraham Lincoln attended at the Ford Theatre the night he was assassinated, perfect for this tale of shootings, vengeance, and intrigue. Oakley Hall has written Westerns in addition to the Bierce series, and it shows through his knowledge of various emerging Western themes and ideas of the era. I highly recommend The Ace of Shoots to anyone who loves a good mystery novel with a Western flair.