Parker’s ‘Devil’ is a smart, spare western
The late, great Robert B. Parker had multiple acts to his life. From teacher to best-selling mystery author, toward the end, he turned to the western. In his marvelous “Appaloosa,’’ (2005) he introduced two taciturn gunslingers, the enigmatic Virgil Cole and his only slightly more voluble sidekick, Everett Hitch, who made a righteous team, following their own moral code and imposing it on the unruly frontier.
In that book and its two follow-ups, “Resolution’’ and “Brimstone,’’ Parker established a fast, fun style using the basics that distinguished his initial and most famous private eye series, the Spenser books: smart, spare writing with more plot than characterization. But while some of Parker’s last detective stories were beginning to show their age — too many minor characters, too little updating of the core gender roles — the latest, and presumably last of the western series, “Blue-Eyed Devil,’’ shines.
“Blue-Eyed Devil’’ opens with the pair back in their hometown of Appaloosa. But the two, who established law there in the first book and exported it in the second, are no longer in charge. Instead, a new chief of police has come in, with 12 gun-toting officers to enforce his rule. While it is immediately apparent that this chief, Amos Callico, has no affection for Cole and Everett’s brand of rough justice, it also becomes obvious that his own is much more self-serving. Callico is ambitious and sees Appaloosa as a stepping stone to higher office. And so without looking for trouble (or trying hard to avoid it), Cole and Hitch find themselves facing off against the lawman in a battle that comes to involve a retired Confederate general, a fancy New Orleans sharpshooter, and the future of their town. The result is a page-turner of the first order, an updated western that feels as fresh as anything out there.
In part, that’s because of the genre. Westerns were always more forgiving of Parker’s foibles. Like his best-known character, Spenser, the author often seemed troubled by female characters and wavered between gallantry and occasional uncomfortable sexism. In the American West of the 19th century, that’s not a problem. Here, Hitch can say things like, “The whore’s name was Emma Scarlet. She was a pleasant whore, and I liked her,’’ without either conflict or self-consciousness.
So, too, starting anew allowed Parker to reinvent the male friendship that worked so well in his first books. Here, instead of Spenser and Hawk, he has the two gunmen. As with Spenser and Hawk, or Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for that matter, Cole and Hitch make an oddly complementary pair. Cole, like Hawk, is the deadlier of the two. Hitch fills more of a Watson role: narrating the events, as well as backing up his leader with his eight-gauge shotgun.
But these characters also boast some unique traits. Cole, for example, is an aspiring autodidact. He picks up words like a crow picks up shiny objects, and much of the ongoing humor in these books consists of watching him try them on for size. Hitch does his best to help him, but remains content to follow, accepting Cole’s natural leadership despite his own education and considerable talents.
To Parker’s credit, he always knew how to pare down a story. Iconic types, a moral fight, and just enough language to convey what’s happening. But that apparent simplicity also makes the rare off notes jarring. “I was looking at Virgil,’’ Hitch says at one point. “He generally had the moral scruples of a tarantula.’’ This about the man whose consistency — whose “same rules’’ — have been a cornerstone of his behavior through four books? Not likely. But Virgil Cole never misses, not when it matters. To the end, Parker didn’t either.
Clea Simon, author of six mysteries, most recently “Grey Matters’’ (Severn House), can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org