Friday, July 9, 2010

Appaloosa - Robert B. Parker

I have long been a fan of Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' novels, his series about a private detective. When I saw that 'Appaloosa' was finally to be published in the UK (originally having been published in the US in 2005) it went straight on to my wish list. I do not read westerns so this is a first for me but I was not disappointed as Parker's prose remains as spare and lean as ever.

The novel is narrated from the viewpoint of Everett Hitch the friend and partner of Virgil Cole. The two are itinerant lawmen in the American west of 1882, hired to sort out the problems of the town of Appaloosa in New Mexico Territory by the town's Board of Aldermen. Rancher Randall Bragg and his hands have taken effective control of the town having murdered the Sheriff and one deputy, his men take what they want, they do not pay, if you object you will be shot. Cole and Hitch are sworn in as lawmen and set about applying the law - as written by them.

Parker is reworking an old theme, even I have heard of 'The Seven Samuri' and The Magnificent Seven', but into the mix he throws Mrs Allie French a single woman with an eye for a strong man. That eye falls on Everett Cole who is not used to being the object of affection of a woman such as Mrs French and who gladly succumbs to her charms, even if she does play the piano badly. Allie is however a deeply flawed character who becomes Cole's Achilles Heel.

Parker's sense of dialogue is as sharp here as in all his books, he does not need to bore us with needless details about the character's surroundings, we can all imagine the wild west, the dust streets, the wooden boardwalks and the swing of the saloon doors so why spend time describing it. What Parker does best is dialogue, the interaction between his characters, the cadences of speech. He is the only writer I know who can write silence into his dialogue and force you to go at his pace.

" 'Bragg's got some water up around his place, but they ain't raising many cows. Mostly they steal them. And pretty much everything else.'

'How many hands,' Cole said.

'With Bragg? Fifteen, maybe twenty.'

'Gun hands?'

'They all carry guns,' May said.

'They any good with them?' Cole said. 'Anybody can carry them.'

'Good enough for us,' Raines said. 'We're all miners and shopkeepers.'

'And we're not,' Cole said

'That's for certain sure,' Olson said. 'I heard after you and Hitch came in and sat on Gin Springs one summer, babies could play in the streets.'

'That's why we sent for you,' Raines said. 'We're ready to pay your price.'

Cole looked at me.

'You game,' he said.

I shrugged

'It's what we do,' I said.

A smile like the flash of a spark spread across Cole's face.

'It is,' he said, 'ain't it.'

Whilst Cole and Hitch deal with the problem of Randall Bragg perhaps the real story is the effect of Allie French on Cole, Cole's 15 year relationship with Hitch and his ability to do his job. Whilst Allie may have an eye for a strong man, the other women are none to impressed. Hitch takes up with a local prostitute Katie Goode who voices her opinion of Allie early

" 'You think she's a sweet thing,' Katie said. 'All you men. Girls know better. She should move up to the north end with the rest of us.'

'You think she's a whore?'

'She's wiggling her sweet ass for money just like the rest of us'

As the events in Appaloosa unfold Allie French winds her way into Virgil Cole's life until Cole is faced with the extinction of his way of life.

Parker has seduced us into thinking he is writing a western when in fact it is a love story, a story about two flawed people, and the story of a friendship that comes asunder. Everything unnecessary has been removed from the narrative so that we are left with the bare bones of men's motivation and their inability to understand what motivates women. This is as true today as it was in the old west.

This is terrific, page turning stuff not to be missed by lovers of westerns, crime novels and love stories.

'Appaloosa' is the first in a series of novels centred around Cole and Hitch, I can only assume that the others 'Resolution', Brimstone' and 'Blue-Eyed Devil' will be published in the UK and Ireland in due course.

'Appaloosa' is currently available in hardback and will be published in paperback on 1st August. It has also been made into a film.

Robert B. Parker died unexpectedly whilst at his desk in January of this year. He wrote over 70 books and has been credited with influencing the work of such authors as Robert Crais, Harlan Coben and Dennis Lehane.

My thanks to Corvus books for providing me with a copy of 'Appaloosa' for review.


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