Author: Robert B Parker
Mood: If you can’t decide between a buddy cop mystery or a Western but either way you don’t want to have to think too hard or worry about problematic portrayals of non-white people.
Some books are great because they make you think. Others are great because they whisk you away to a fantasy world. Appaloosa is a rare breed that simply moves so easily from start to finish that you forget you’re even reading.
I picked up Appaloosa immediately after finishing Val Kilmer’s I’m Your Huckleberry. I needed a book that was likely to at least be ‘good’, to make up for that massive f*cking disappointment. How can you name a book after your famous line spoken as one of the most iconic Western movie characters of all time, and then share NOTHING about your method or research behind the portrayal of Doc Holliday, or even your thoughts on the man or the period?
You owe me, Mr. Kilmer.
Closing that memoir left me cranky, and a bit desperate. I turned to my Western shelves. I’m still burnt out on L’Amour, after reading and ranking the entire Sacketts series in order, so I wanted to try a new author. I’d enjoyed the 2008 movie version of Appaloosa, and so I decided to give the book a shot.
Well, hot damn. Appaloosa delivered the swift and sure-footed adventure that I needed.
Appaloosa is set in 1882, a fact I only learned from the movie but the book definitely reads like 1880s New Mexico. The prologue tells the story of a marshal and his deputies riding out to a ranch, to arrest a man for rape and murder. The rancher and his hands kill the marshal and one of the deputies.
The rancher, Randall Bragg, has a vice grip on the town of Appaloosa. Its alderman call in two lawmen for hire: Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole. The book is narrated through Hitch’s perspective.
Hitch and Cole have a method. They ride into a town, get its leadership to temporarily sign over all authority including the ability to create laws, and then take care of business.
Bragg has money and power, so he proves tough to take down. And things are complicated by Allie French, a social climber who latches onto the ‘head stallion’ wherever she happens to be. Often that’s Cole, but when he’s not around she quickly shifts her affections to another man in charge.
I spent the entire time I was watching Appaloosa (the movie) totally confused about why Cole would have any interest in Allie. I thought it was because Renée Zellweger didn’t make the character convincingly appealing. Now that I’ve read the book, I think it was because Allie is young and pretty and ambitious, so Cole can overlook her shitty qualities.
But seriously, WTF. Their relationship is NOT one you’re rooting for. Cole says that he knows she will leave him if he doesn’t keep his position of power. She tells a lie that Hitch tried to get in her pants, and she sleeps around constantly. And Cole is just like “meh, there’s no one else I like”.
I guess it’s a good change of pace from the usual ‘cowboy meets young lady, they bicker, he realizes it’s actually love’ Western storyline. Allie isn’t some fainting damsel either; she knows what she wants and manipulates every single situation. And the conflict keeps you engaged, because you have no idea what shitty thing she’ll do next.
On that note, Appaloosa is a super fast read because it’s mostly dialogue – the total opposite of my recent Louis L’Amour bender. The simple yet effective language flows so naturally that before you know it, you’ve breezed through 50+ pages. And if you liked the movie, it’s SO CLOSE TO THE BOOK and has lots of the exact same lines.
The framework of the story has been done before – the theme of a town desperate to get rid of a powerful bully is popular in Westerns. Hitch and Cole are also very much a classic buddy cop pairing. But Robert B. Parker shakes it up by making some of the bad guys not that bad, or rather, only situationally bad.
And the good guys aren’t perfectly good either. They kind of rewrite laws and then give bad guys one chance before shooting them.
Parker’s writing makes you feel as if you’re RIGHT THERE in those dusty streets, or sitting astride a horse on a hilltop with Hitch and Cole. It’s probably because the dialogue feels exactly right for the time and for the characters; not a word is out of place, and no words are wasted.
That’s the cool thing about Appaloosa: it tells a powerful story of friendship… without ever talking about friendship.
You’ve got these two total badasses, both skilled gunmen, and neither is big on chit-chat. They’ve worked together for a long time, and know each other better than anyone else ever could. Hitch knows what Cole is going to say, what he means when he uses the wrong words, and what his next moves will be. But he has no idea if Cole has ever been in love or married, because they don’t talk about that kind of thing.
They’re actually kind of the perfect Western characters. They’re all about observation and action. Both cool-headed and totally unflappable. It’s fully believable that they’ve survived as long as they have, doing the work that they do – not because they’re unrealistically skilled, but because of how they think and how they manage situations.
I’m definitely going to read the next book in the Hitch and Cole series, because this one was so much fun.