"The Fast Men" by Scottish author Tom McNab is a lovely book that brings to life a side of the American west of the 1870s that will probably never have occurred to most of its readers. Take a large dose of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but with less gun-play and - slight spoiler alert - a rather less catastrophic ending. Add in a second helping of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, this time in "The Sting". And then apply the mix to a story about running (and some jumping) and the large scale gambling that surrounded every competitive event at the time.
The Honourable Professor Moriaty is a man with humble origins and roots in the Highland Clearances. We read about his migration with his father, a runner and, eventually, a theatre set builder, to the United States, and then his discovery that his own running career is going to be limited by a medical condition. Instead, Moriaty forges a successful career in the theatre, and an equally successful, if much more chequered one, as a gambler and con-artist. He achieves great success by recruiting two runners, Buck Miller and Billy Joe Speed, and together with Moriaty's wife Eleanor, who he met on a visit to England, they tour the United States of the 1870s, giving theatrical performances and relieving residents of money bet on local "fast men" against the visitors.
But even in a small-town world with limited communications there is bound to come a point when trying to play the same cons time after time is going to run out of milage. The question that matters is simply whether this will happen before or after they have raised enough money to realise Eleanor's dream of establishing a permanent theatre on the west coast. The action moves back and forth across the Atlantic, and then Buck and Billy Joe are captured by Sioux while trying to track down the spoils of a gold mining venture, and have to, literally, run for their lives.
Each of us has imprinted on our mind a series of images of the "wild west", usually informed, if that's quite the right word, by John Wayne, Sergio Leone and, yes, by Butch and Sundance. "The Fast Men" takes these images and forces the reader to re-examine them from an entirely new angle. The result is a highly entertaining book and a great read.