Having revitalized the private eye genre 35 years ago with his
Spenser series, Robert B. Parker might be in the process
of doing the same thing for the western. BRIMSTONE is the third
installment in a series that started with APPALOOSA in 2005 and
continued with RESOLUTION in 2008.
At first, longtime readers of Parker’s mysteries were
curious if the great writer could weave his narrative magic in the
western genre. We need not have worried. In these westerns, Parker
has created a fresh take on a tired genre.
BRIMSTONE once again deals with the exploits of “guns for
hire” Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two men who have
partnered together for 20 years. While former West Point graduate
and soldier Hitch tells the story, the center of the story revolves
around Cole. Cole calls the shots. Parker introduces us to him on
the first page:
“Several people looked at Virgil when he came in. He
wasn’t special-looking. Sort of tall, wearing a black coat
and a white shirt and a Colt with a white bone handle. But there
was something about the way he walked and the way the gun seemed so
natural. People looked at me sometimes, too, but always after they
looked at Virgil.
BRIMSTONE picks up where RESOLUTION left off. Virgil is
searching for the woman he loves, Allie French, who ran off a while
back with another man. We first met Allie in APPALOOSA when she
arrived in town with dreams of being a saloon singer and piano
player. She won Virgil’s heart, even as it became apparent
that she had no musical talent whatsoever.
Everett and Virgil spend a year wandering through every little
camp settlement looking for Allie. When BRIMSTONE begins, we learn
that Allie’s dreams have died hard. Everett spots her first
in the little Texas town of Placido, “which had a railroad
station, and one saloon for every man, women and child in
Hitch says: “I looked at the whores. It was hard in the
dim light, and I almost missed her. The pink dress was dirty. Her
hair was ratty. She was a lot thinner than she had been, and the
body that had once pushed at the confines of her dress now seemed
shrunken inside her clothes…I went back into the despondent
street feeling tired and tight across my shoulders.”
Both men, of course, rescue Allie, and they all flee to the town
of Brimstone to start anew. Virgil and Everett take jobs as
deputies. But much of the book revolves around the question that
Virgil wrestles with: Can Allie change? Can anybody ever change?
And that gives this western a unique psychological dimension.
At one time the western genre was one of the most popular in
popular fiction. From the earliest pulp paperbacks to the extensive
work of Zane Grey, the western novel cemented in American culture
the heroic myth of how the West was won. Hollywood quickly cashed
in and glorified the American Indian War, America’s first war
of counterinsurgency. But by the 1960s and 1970s America was
fighting another war of counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia, and
the once popular western novel and movie was in rapid decline.
The heroic fictional myth of the Old West was also exposed by
historians such as Dee Brown and Howard Zinn. Brown’s BURY MY
HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE is still required reading for every American.
It showed that the glorious American Indian War was little more
than the genocide of Native American human beings and the stealing
of their land.
Popular western fiction that came out of this period was
decidedly revisionist, such as Thomas Berger’s novel LITTLE
BIG MAN, later made into the 1970 film, and the movie Doc,
written by Pete Hamill.
But the traditional western was largely finished, and even great
writers who worked extensively in the field, such as Elmore
Leonard, quickly migrated into mysteries. The one exception has
been Larry McMurtry, but his most famous work, LONESOME DOVE, was
really a psychological character study of two comrades. In later
years westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven
and the HBO series “Deadwood” have been neither mythic
nor revisionist, preferring instead to be realistic portrayals of
the Old West.
Parker is now writing definitely in the realistic style. Everett
and Virgil are killers, but basically good guys. And while they
might wear badges, they are not lawmen in any traditional sense.
They have no civic commitment to the towns where they work and have
little use for courts or law; indeed, there are no courts or law or
government in Brimstone besides their guns. They are mercenaries
with a conscience.
Unlike Brother Percival, the preacher who practices a
“militant Christianity” complete with armed
“deacons,” while lusting for earthly power, or saloon
owner Pike, who kills for greed and power, Virgil and Everett are
motivated by more complex reasons. Parker writes:
“‘We not going to back-shoot anybody,’ Virgil
said. ‘We risk our lives to do what we think, the right thing
to do. Somebody told me once that was pretty much all you can ask
‘Who was that?’ I said.
‘A smart fella,’ Virgil said, and sipped his coffee.
‘Went to West Point.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Him.’”
And in BRIMSTONE their motivation is dictated by Virgil’s
complicated feelings about Allie, who, despite her professed love
for him and promises to change, continues her unfaithful ways. She
says at one point, “Only way I knew to get what I wanted,
feel like I wanted to feel, be how I wanted, only way for me was to
Nobody draws pistols on the count of three in this version of
the Old West. Virgil simply tells his foe, “I’m gonna
kill you.” Then he does. And those who fall receive another
bullet in the head to make sure they stay down. Life is
particularly hard on women and Native American children kidnapped
by the U.S. Army and forced to go to the “Indian
school” to adapt to the white world.
Parker has written a fast moving, authentic western in a time
when counterinsurgency policy has been revived. And in Virgil and
Everett, he has created two colorful characters who rival Gus and
Call from LONESOME DOVE in terms of their dialogue and interplay.
We can hopefully look forward to many more adventures involving
Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch and Allie French.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 23, 2010