In 2001, Robert B. Parker took his Boston detective hero Spenser west, clear out to Arizona, to clean out a den of bad guys in the novel “Potshot.”
But he couldn’t rightly take Spenser back in time, so he needed a new hero for his classic Western “Appaloosa.” He came up with Everett Hitch, who is not quite as literate as Spenser or as troubled as Parker’s newer protagonist, Jesse Stone. But he is big, brave, loyal, a pithy philosopher and a real good shot. Spenser fans will not feel deprived.
Loyalty is, as usual, Parker’s grand theme, not merely as a principle but as a driving force. The novel’s action is propelled by what Everett Hitch must do to protect his boss, the taciturn marshal Virgil Cole, and what Cole must do to keep his lover, the treacherous Allie French.
Hitch and Cole become acquainted while shooting their way out of a tight spot. They manage this with such success that Cole decides he has found himself a deputy. The plot gets going when they ride into Appaloosa, a town with the quintessential Western-town problem: a bunch of bad guys running amok.
The action moves along swiftly, with dialogue that fairly crackles:
“You shot three of my hands,” Bragg said.
“Matter of fact,” Cole said, “I only shot two. Hitch shot the other one.”
Hitch is the narrator, a good-natured man with a clear-headed, uncomplicated view of life. The difference between him and his boss, as he sees it, is that Cole is “a little crazy.” But, as he explains to the intimidated local alderman, sometimes “crazy is what it takes.”
The problem with archetypes is that they run to type – and stereotype. Parker populates his novel with the characters required by the genre: brave lawmen, cowering merchants, gun-toting scoundrels, a hooker or two and, of course, Indians. The trick is to raise the characters above the cliches and the plot above the formulaic.
It’s not easily done. Larry McMurtry managed it in the rich and mythic “Lonesome Dove” by creating characters so complex and believable that they were refreshing even in a swinging-door saloon fight or an Indian ambush. Clint Eastwood succeeded on film in the gritty “Unforgiven” by turning the heroic myth on its ear with an unsparing look at the damage that violence can do to men’s souls.
Parker takes a little from each of those playbooks, but perhaps he could have taken a little more. The story hews closely to the classic Western formula, and when it gets lofty with a conceit about wild stallions, it comes off as heavy-handed.
Yet Parker does not, for the most part, give in to stereotypes. The characters have quirks. The marshal has serious usage problems with words of three syllables or more. The hooker does not seem to have the requisite heart of gold. The faithful deputy is quite a bit too flippant. The Indians aren’t afraid to walk away from a fight. And the good guys can be bad.
That is what always makes Parker worth reading: He allows his bad guys to be entertainingly bad, but always refuses to let his good guys be too good. Loyal, yes. Virtuous, not entirely.
The battle that Hitch and Cole fight with the bad guys is classic Western. The battle they fight inside themselves is pure Parker. Both make good reading.