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Lone Gunman

Robert B. Parker
Putnam, 2005
Rating: 3.4

Posted: August 20, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Most of Robert B. Parker's books -- be they mysteries involving his perennial private eye Spenser or one-offs like last year's Double Play -- are, at heart, about the macho-man ideal. The stoic machismo with which Parker invests his various male protagonists owes a large debt to classic Westerns, so it's no surprise that he should eventually have directed his energies toward tackling an actual Western. First was the likeable Gunman's Rhapsody, a fairly straightforward telling of the Old West's premier real-life myth -- the story of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral. Now comes Appaloosa, which, like his most recent book, Cold Service, finds Parker staking out a different take -- consciously or not -- on his standard silent, self-directed sentinel prototype.

Appaloosa is ostensibly about Virgil Cole, a quiet freelance lawman with a very strong internal barometer of what's right, what's not and what he'll put up with. But in its own way, it's just as much about its narrator, Everett Hitch, Cole's longtime deputy and friend. Hitch is no slouch as a gunman, and he's a bit smarter than Cole, to boot (he's a former soldier who went to West Point). But he's settled into his role as Cole's sidekick, more often than not deferring to his friend without question or hesitation.

It's hard not to see Hitch as a stand-in for Parker himself, who often seems in thrall to a slightly outmoded ideal of masculinity, one that may only have ever really existed in the hazy 20-20 hindsight of nostalgia. Of course, if this is Parker's true intention -- or if he's even aware of it -- one wouldn't know it from the first half or so of Appaloosa, which unfolds in fairly typical Western fashion. Cole and Hitch are hired to police the small town of Appaloosa, whose most wealthy citizen, a rancher named Bragg, considers himself above the law; Cole and Hitch get the job only after Bragg has killed the last man to hold the position.

Naturally, Cole and Bragg begin circling each other in a wary dance of wills. This isn't a big deal to Hitch -- not as much as Allie French, a widowed piano player who sets her own sights on Cole, who proves less of a match for her wagonload of issues than he is for Bragg's comparatively uncomplicated villainy. Because this is a Parker book, Allie is not a sympathetic character, and even after Cole gets a good look at her duplicitous nature (during a protracted segment involving a kidnap and a long pursuit), he doesn't have the wherewithal, or perhaps the ability, to extricate himself from her.

No, despite the focus on Cole, it's Hitch who ultimately steps up and provides the book's most heroic moment. Acting out of loyalty to a man whose strict, simple view of the world doesn't fully equip him to deal with a potentially wrenching betrayal, Hitch takes matters into his own hands -- he uses the same sense of clear-cut pragmatism that limits Cole to, in a sense, protect the lawman from himself. It's an unforeseen solution to a thorny dilemma, and it's all the more affecting for its subtle acknowledgement -- explicit or otherwise -- that there are limits to the efficacy of the rough-cut, John Wayne idealism that so often blinkers Parker's protagonists.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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