Robert B. Parker, by virtue of his Spenser mythos, is in the
enviable position of being able to write whatever he wants. He is
on record as stating that he will continue to write Spenser novels
as long as readers want them; he is also busily creating two other
fine series, featuring Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Then there
are Parker's stand-alone novels, stories that don't fit into any
particular series but that seem to pay homage to his interest in
history. There's DOUBLE PLAY, Parker's fictionalized account of
Jackie Robinson and the breaking of baseball's color barrier, and
GUNMAN'S RHAPSODY, a romanticized retelling of a portion of the
legend of Wyatt Earp.
APPALOOSA is Parker's return to the Western frontier, a story of
passion and rough justice carried out against the backdrop of the
1800s, in a place where the rules of law and conduct were more
often than not created by the immediate situation at hand, and
where law enforcement was performed by men who were, for all
intents and purposes, little more than mercenaries --- with the
Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are a team, a pair of fast guns for
hire by towns that are slipping into the dark breach of
lawlessness. While it is Hitch who narrates APPALOOSA, the focus is
on Cole, a man who is known throughout the territory for his
fearlessness and his fast and uncanny aim. Cole and Hitch are
brought to Appaloosa as a last resort due to the actions of Randall
Bragg, a renegade rancher whose cattle hands use the town for their
personal plunder. They quickly establish their presence in
Appaloosa and attract the attention, and enmity, of Bragg.
Cole also attracts the attention of Allison French, a new arrival
in Appaloosa who quickly sets her sights upon him, and he upon her.
This mutual attraction does not escape Bragg's notice; when Cole
and Hitch make their move against him, Bragg utilizes Cole's one
weakness, forcing Cole to make a decision that he will almost
certainly regret. It is Hitch, however, who is the true wild card
in the book.
One element of Parker's stand-alone novels that, by necessity, is
not present in his series books is that literally anything can
happen. This is especially true in APPALOOSA, where the surprises
come regularly and rapidly, from first page to last, without
predictability. APPALOOSA does not merely consist of a series of
gunfights, however. Parker subtly but deftly explores the mores and
customs of the country in the late 1800s, drawing implicit
comparisons between then and now.
Parker is certainly in his element in APPALOOSA. There are few
authors treading into the western field with any regularity ---
Tony Hillerman, arguably, Elmore Leonard, and the criminally
under-appreciated John Edward Ames, among others --- and with the
new interest in the genre, thanks to the Deadwood series on HBO,
perhaps we will see more. In the interim, however, Parker --- as he
does in the mystery genre --- continues to set the standard.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010