Robert B. Parker's Bull River
Robert B. Parker will be forever associated with Spenser, his iconic Boston private investigator whose tough and tender persona continues to attract armies of readers of mystery and detective fiction. However, many may not be aware of the Cole and Hitch series that he launched a few years before his passing. While it fittingly and properly is classified firmly within the western genre, Parker, who has been very ably succeeded by Robert Knott, included a strong mystery element in the books, so that the series straddles that boundary between the whodunit and the gunslingers. The result is one that should be particularly satisfying to fans of both genres.
BULL RIVER is the sixth and latest installment in the series, as well as the second to be penned by Knott, who succeeds admirably in capturing Parker’s voice through Deputy Everett Hitch, who, with Territorial Marshal Virgil Cole, are tasked with maintaining some semblance of law and order on the western frontier of the United States in the late 1800s. The book begins with Cole and Hitch delivering a dangerous but disarmingly charming outlaw named Alejandro Vasquez to a small town in Texas, where he is to be tried for murder. The robbery of the local Comstock Bank occurs almost simultaneously and seemingly involves Henry Strode, the bank president, and his wife.
"While such worthy television series as 'Justified' and 'Hell on Wheels' have initiated a slow-motion revival of the contemporary and traditional western, Parker’s efforts and Knott’s resumption should motivate readers, particularly lovers of mystery fiction, to take a chance on BULL RIVER..."
The Strodes disappear immediately after the heist, though Henry turns up the worse for wear outside of a house of ill repute and without any of the proceeds from the robbery in his possession. But that doesn't prevent him from vanishing again as soon as he can stagger away from his sickbed. Strode is not who he appears to be, and the key to the entire matter rests with the unlikely Vasquez, who knew Strode in another life. Vasquez claims he knows who is really behind the robbery, where the robbers and the stolen money are, and wants to cut a deal concerning the murders with which he is charged.
It is left to Cole and Hitch to do some actual detective work, and while they don’t have all of the bells and whistles of their contemporary counterparts on “Law & Order”and “CSI,” they don’t do a bad job at all using their powers of observation and deduction. Hitch is a man of few words and Cole of even fewer, but what they lack in the loquaciousness of, say, Spenser and Hawk, they make up for in their reflexes, which is a good thing, given that they find themselves frequently outnumbered as the book runs its course. While the BULL RIVER of the title is not reached until the climax, there is plenty to keep the men busy in the meantime. They form an uneasy alliance with Vasquez and follow a faint trail across Texas and into the deep reaches of Mexico, pursuing Strode, who, in turn, is pursuing the outlaw --- a man he knows only too well --- who stole the money and his wife.
While such worthy television series as “Justified” and “Hell on Wheels” have initiated a slow-motion revival of the contemporary and traditional western, Parker’s efforts and Knott’s resumption should motivate readers, particularly lovers of mystery fiction, to take a chance on BULL RIVER and, by extension, the longstanding, neither-gone-nor-forgotten genre. I suspect they will be pleasantly surprised and inclined to search out the backlist as well.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 7, 2014