Review: Writ in Blood by Julie Bozza

I confess that, while I have no particular affinity for westerns, I love books by Julie Bozza. Whatever theme she’s tackling, I know there’ll be nuance and depth, explorations of queerness and friendship, examinations of complex people with difficult personalities who may be hard to like, let alone love – and yet I know before the end I will love at least some of them. Often, she’ll include a smidge of the paranormal.

Writ in Blood contains all of these things, in its thorough, inventive and rivetting take on the events that led up to the infamous 30-second shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881, and its murderous aftermath.

The lead-up to the gunfight is pretty Byzantine. Lawmen weren’t always particularly law-abiding and gamblers like Doc Holliday weren’t necessarily gunslingers, even if they weren’t especially law-abiding either. Allegiances get slippery and keeping track of all the people named Billy is a task unto itself. Then there are all the killings and revenge killings and the vendettas seeking payback for the revenge killings, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

Bozza takes these tangled skeins of personalities, allegiances and events and carefully selects the threads to weave a gripping story about honour, love, revenge and hope in those dangerous times. She also weaves in some colourful new threads of her own making.

Wyatt, Doc and Ringo are the triple focus of Writ in Blood, which begins with John Ringo under arrest for his first killing. His story proceeds to weaves in and out of the Earp/Holliday story, as his fluid allegiences reflect his tactiturnity and loneliness, and his mind becomes as grey, tattered and ephemeral as the soul he has lost somewhere in the western wilds, unwanted even by hell. (We know this because Ringo offered it to the ethereally beautiful son of the devil in trade for a one night stand. The sex happened, but his threadbare soul doesn’t seem to have been claimed. Ringo has several sexual encounters with this golden demon, and it’s deliberately unclear whether these are real or products of Ringo’s muddled psyche.)

Ringo is a deeply disturbed soul, who has done bad things but does not feel like he’s a bad man. While his darkness carries curious elements of light and honour, Wyatt Earp is effectively his opposite: a man of honour who in time gives in to dark deeds when the law fails him.

And between the two of them sits Doc Holliday, another contradiction: a deliciously devil-may-care gambler and gunslinger with a sense of honour – given only months to live in his early days as a dentist, and now living high and wide and handsome in expectation of imminent death by TB.

Doc Holliday, cheerfully bisexual, conducts a torrid affair with Ringo for a time – all sex, no love – before finally falling in with the Earps, where he falls in unrequited yet steadfast love with Wyatt. For his part, Wyatt clearly values his friendship with a man who skirts the edge of the law, finding comfort in Doc’s company, particularly in the worst of times.

With this emotional backdrop, which explores motivating forces for Ringo, Holliday and the Earps, Writ in Blood charts a course from Ringo’s arrest in 1877, through all the winding paths towards the 1881 gunfight and what followed, to Ringo’s violent, lonely death and, finally, to a last reunion between Doc and Wyatt in 1885.

It’s chronologically linear, but the character journeys are deep and often contradictory. Bozza gently unfolds their changing relationships, fears, ambitions and confrontations, maintaining clarity while providing satisfying complexity and depth. While the men of legend take centre stage, the women – the wives of the Earp men and Doc Holliday’s common-law wife, sex worker Kate Elder – have more presence and agency than they get in most retellings.

Through these three men, and all the acts of love and violence they commit, Bozza gives us a vibrant and compelling view into the brutality and romance of the tumultuous and untamed American west. It’s another complex work of art by Julie Bozza, writ in dust, blood, grief and love – made more wonderful by the actual art by Mags Kulbicka within its pages.

Buy Writ in Blood

If you’d like to learn more, Bozza has written several blog posts exploring the real history of these people, and discussing the liberties she’s taken with facts (where they’re known) and her choices in selecting elements of history for what is after all fiction.