Robert B. Parker's Buckskin (A Cole and Hitch Novel)
"Overall, Knott's worthy attempt fails in style and form."
After Robert B. Parker died in 2010 at the age of 77 having written more than 60 books, G. P. Putnam's Sons made an agreement with his estate to continue some of his series in the hands of other respected and accomplished writers. Robert Knott, a talented author, actor, and producer was selected to continue Parker's celebrated Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Western series.
Robert B. Parker fans, readers of Western novels, and cowboy junkies (the devotees of cowboys not the Canadian rock group) can expect to be disappointed in this book. Knott, though successful in his other endeavors, does not quite measure up to Robert B. Parker. But in all fairness, who does?
Parker, the recipient of numerous prestigious writing awards, was considered the dean of American crime fiction. He was critically acclaimed for his still popular Spenser novels, two other bestselling detective series, and his Western novel, Appaloosa, which was made into a hit movie two years before he died.
If there ever was a book for Western readers to love, it should have been this one. The characters are there, sort of, the setting is there, sort of, and the plot is there, somewhere. A secondary plot threaded throughout the narrative is far more compelling. (More on that later.)
The main story conflict is set up early on. Competing gold mine operators have each hired gunslingers, for protection, they say, but soon workers turn up missing, and then a mine executive is murdered. Cole and Hitch are called on to forestall the anticipated violence which, in the story, is a long time coming. After setting the stage with the main players and their concerns, the tale occasionally wanders off on tangents.
Despite Knott's best efforts, the book is draggy (slow as molasses), lacks convincing Western ambience (dubious contemporary turns of phrase detract from the illusion,) spoken and internal dialogue are inconsistent in tone (have you ever known a cowboy to have the word elegant in his vocabulary?) In the author's attempt to portray the way cowboys really talk (John Wayne anyone?) and to emulate the way Parker wrote cowboy lingo, Knott often makes Cole and Hitch and some of the others sound like wannabes, or worse, suggests they have a mental deficiency of some kind.
Uneven in its implementation, the evolution of the story has the feeling of having been written by three different authors. Here's an example of the short, choppy, less-is-more, page-filling dialogue:
"Virgil glanced at me.
"'Sounds right,' I said.
"'Does,' Virgil said.
"'To the hotel?' she said
"'Indeed,' Allie said.
"Martha Kathryn took my arm and we walked, following Virgil and Allie toward the Hotel Windsor.
"'What'd you think, Mr. Hitch?'
"'Think you're damn good.'
"'About the show.'
"'I enjoyed it, didn't completely understand the plot, but I enjoyed it.'
"'Yes, it is a rather nonsensical show.'
"'But I enjoyed it. Enjoyed you.'"
And so on.
The scarcity of attributions prompts quite a bit of re-reading in order to follow who said what.
Here's a bit more from the Acting Sheriff:
"'What can I do for you?' Lloyd said.
"'Who's in charge around here?'
"'Charge of what?'
"'Who's the sheriff?'
"'For the time being, that'd be me.'"
On the other hand, most of the narrative is quite articulate. Marshal Virgil Cole's internal dialogue is considerably more fluent than when he's conversing with Everett Hitch:
"The McCormick brothers were new to Appaloosa. They were not the rough-and-tumble, and often crude, Irishmen we normally encountered. They were very different. Educated and civilized. They were older, industrious men who moved to town with money in their pockets. And from what we knew of them, they were not crooks. They started up a number of businesses within their first year of residency, and they employed a good number of people. They were ranchers with a decent size cow/calf operation, but they also owned a dry-good business, a furniture store, and now a gold-mining outfit."
And most absorbing of all, from the intriguing secondary plot (printed entirely in italics)—a young cowboy's escape from jail:
"The kid was small, not tall at all and one hundred thirty pounds soaking wet. He backed away as the cell door opened and the burly jailer charged him. He slapped the kid so hard blood flew . . . The next strike came from the kid. It was swift and in the jailer's throat, and it was the sharp spoon handle that buried into the man's neck. . . . The jailer stumbled, hurt and bleeding. He dropped on the bunk . . . Then the kid held up the stabbing tool. He showed the spoon to the jailer.
"'This here spoon was from that lousy plum pudding your asshole buddy gave me yesterday. That was all I had to eat. . . '"
Overall, Knott's worthy attempt fails in style and form.