Cowboys and their injuries

The Chivalry of Crime by Desmond Barry (Jonathan Cape, £10)
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The Independent Culture

Desmond Barry confesses that the Pogues ballad about the legendary American outlaw inspired him to write a voice for Jesse James, that "dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard", in his gritty first novel The Chivalry of Crime. The researcher for Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs, Barry shows an extraordinary talent for creating historical characters who inhabit a convincing past. James is scarcely likeable, but his motives become understandable, and so does his significant place in the American psyche. This is a great, galloping, delightful read that will rope in even readers who are no fans of the Western.

Barry gives this novel depth by making the historical link between the Confederate rebels who operated like a guerrilla army (chillingly reminiscent of the Bosnian Serbs) during the American civil war, and the legendary outlaws of the West. He mines the seam of violence that underpinned US political development and reveals how intimately it was bound up with nascent ideologies.

Jesse joins his brother, hiding out with the rebels after a Union officer tortures him and his stepfather at their family farm in Missouri for information that would lead them to the "guerrillas". A preacher's son, James understands his fight against the Yankees as a mission that he must execute with religious zeal. Killing becomes its own motive. "All that counted was abandon to the cause of violence", where lay "some supreme mystery that had to do with God's venegeful heart".

After years living in the bush, feeding off violence and humiliated by defeat, the transition from enemy soldiers into outlaws in the new United States seems inevitable. The ideological conviction remains: that they are only robbing to fund a Confederate revival. But there is also a "sweet joy" that fills Jesse after a bank raid turns into a bloodbath: "War's wild music, oh yes, war's wild music reprised."

Fiction becomes interwoven with historical truths as Jesse strikes a deal for exclusive coverage with John Newman Edwards, editor of the Kansas City Times. Barry has a knack for making such deals seem startlingly relevant. With Edwards's publicity, James gambles that if he ever comes to trial, he will have won any jury's hearts and minds through his daring adventures. He becomes a living legend - with editorial support.

In 19th-century America, James the outlaw was a powerful enough figure to send young men into the hills with second-hand guns. Barry explores this phenomenon through 15-year-old Joshua Beynon, a Welsh immigrnat who accidentally murders his father. The deeply alienated Joshua, who has already lost his mother, sister and baby brother to fevers, dreams of becoming a shootist. Again the contemporary relevance strikes a strong chord, as Beynon's father worries about his son's admiration of Bob Ford, a louche saloon owner credited with killing the legendary Jesse James. The tensions between the god-fearing but hypocritical folk of Weaver and Bob Ford's gang - who exploit their desire for whisky, prostitutes and gambling - are writ large. James, by comparision, seems downright moral.