Once upon a time, not that long ago, you would enter a bookstore (back when there were more of them around than today) and see a display of beautiful books with the name Robert B. Parker on the top of the cover page. That meant you were in for a great reading experience. We thought that ended when Parker died suddenly at his desk back in early 2010 at the age of 77. We were wrong.
Parker was a great, inventive author. So we should not be surprised that he --- more accurately his estate --- figured out how to keep those new Parker books arriving in the bookstores. The Parker name has been turned into a brand; the author might be gone, but the series characters will live on, albeit written by others. It has already happened with both the beloved and famous Spenser series and the books starring police chief Jesse Stone.
Now it happens again with the western series Parker began in 2005 with freelance lawman Jesse Cole and his sidekick and deputy, Everett Hitch. ROBERT B. PARKER’S IRONHORSE is the fifth book in the series, which this time is written by Robert Knott. Knott produced and adapted the first Cole book to the silver screen in the 2008 movie Appaloosa,which starred Ed Harris as Cole. Knott had an especially tough assignment here in that this is his first novel.
But IRONHORSE works as a terrific genre western. Parker was the perfect writer for movie adaptations since his chapters were almost cinematic: short scenes of just a few pages each that move the narrative forward at breakneck speed. One of the trademarks of the Parker writing style is that his books are super easy to read. Knott keeps this tradition alive: 113 chapters of just over three pages each. Longtime fans of the master like me fall effortlessly into the story.
"All in all, IRONHORSE will appeal to fans of both Parker and the western genre. It is an entertaining, fast-paced story that delivers. Robert Knott stepped into huge shoes, if not rowels, and delivers. One looks forward to Ed Harris hopefully playing Cole again in a movie version and to future installments of the series."
And the story is a good and unique one. We meet Cole and Everett on a train heading north from Texas through Native American territory, now Oklahoma. They are territorial marshals on their way home after delivering some alleged Mexican criminals to the border. Armed robbers appear in their train car. Gunplay ensues, and the lawmen quickly remove the immediate threat.
But they soon learn that there are over a dozen bandits on the train, and their goal is not just the passengers’ valuables but also a half-million dollars traveling with the governor of Texas, who is on the train with his wife and two young daughters. Add in the presence of a “murderous loner” by the name of Bloody Bob Brandice, who has a personal score to settle with Virgil, who left him in the gutter 11 years before with two .44 slugs in him.
Further complicating things is that the train is heading slowly uphill in a violent thunderstorm. The story is narrated, as always, by Everett, who has been at Virgil’s side in frontier battles for 20 years. He describes Virgil as the perfect western hero: “Virgil was more capable than anybody I ever saw in a struggle, but Virgil always valued strategy over struggle. I always thought that if Virgil had fought with the Army he would have made a hell of a general… Virgil was selfless, matter-of-fact, always knowing that there was nothing more to the future than the present, and that fact made him stand taller than most.”
He is also stoic, laconic and, like all western heroes, his bullets always hit what he aims for with deadly results. Now this is a traditional western, so you will always get somebody who says, more than once, “We got us a bad situation here, Marshall.” But Knott brings to the series a Hollywood film guy’s appreciation of detail. There are wonderful, historically accurate descriptions of the train, especially the new invention of George Westinghouse’s air brakes. We get a sense of the progress of technology --- still around today --- as we learn that this technological invention made railroad brakemen obsolete and jobless. Virgil, in his droll way, wonders if they won’t somehow figure out how to make these technological wonders fly someday.
However, Virgil still makes things simple and understandable. When the bad guys cut the air breaks and separate the train into three pieces, he compares it to a worm being dissected. Knott also captures perfectly the 19th-century way of speaking, where folks with a small amount of education would labor to speak formally. We also learn how to get a horse onto a train and that you have to keep loading them on and off until they feel comfortable. Who knew? Knott’s use of western detail is so good that it left me scratching my head at points. The term “a borsal style hackamore” is lost on modern readers (it is some sort of bridle), and I had no idea that “oversized rowels” had something to do with a spur. But then again I know more about subways than horses. And on the former you just need a MetroCard, not a spur, to take a ride.
All in all, IRONHORSE will appeal to fans of both Parker and the western genre. It is an entertaining, fast-paced story that delivers. Robert Knott stepped into huge shoes, if not rowels, and delivers. One looks forward to Ed Harris hopefully playing Cole again in a movie version and to future installments of the series.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 31, 2013