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Book Review: Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker

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Robert B. Parker’s second Western novel, Appaloosa, is being made into a movie starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. I’d previously passed Parker’s novel by, though I love his writing, because he’s Bostonian to the bone and I figured if I wanted to read Westerns (which I grew up on), I’d go back and pick up Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton, or the occasional Max Brand.

I read all of Parker’s Spenser novels, and every book in his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series, and even the recent Young Adult novel Edenville Owls. All of those are set in Boston or Massachusetts, which is Parker’s stomping grounds. I just didn’t want my favorite “Easterner” writer mixing it up with Westerns.

But with the movie coming out, I got curious. The book had been released in paperback, so I picked up that edition and tucked in. Before I knew it, like with every other Parker book I’ve ever read, the pages started flying by and I was having a great time.

The plot essentially boils down to the town tamer line. A ruthless rancher, Bragg, and his boys are shooting up the town of Appaloosa whenever they get the urge.  When three of the hired hands kill a man and rape his wife, the local marshal goes out to Bragg’s ranch and gets gunned down in cold blood.

Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch have been taming towns for a long time. The city aldermen hire them to bring Bragg to heel. Cole agrees to the job, if they’ll allow him to write out the laws they need to pass, and the war begins.

Parker writes some of the best dialogue out there. It’s short, punchy, and says a lot in a few words. In a short time, Cole and Hitch put Bragg and his boys on notice and they discover really quick that the two new marshals don’t have any hesitation about killing anyone who goes up against them.

The action sequences at this point are great. The scenery and the sets are barely described, but I’ve seen so many Westerns that as soon as the bar’s batwing doors were mentioned, I had the rest of the saloon in mind. So it wouldn’t have mattered how much Parker tried to build the Western world he was writing in, I already had my view of it. He’s a skillful enough writer that I think he was banking on that and didn’t want to get in the way of his readers who love Westerns.

The plot takes a turn, for the worse in my opinion, with the introduction of Allie French. She says she’s married but that her husband ran off. Arriving in Appaloosa (though what she was planning on doing because she only had a dollar to her name) is anybody’s guess. Cole is smitten with her and sets her up playing piano at the hotel. Every long-time reader of Parker’s work feels the familiar groove drop into place. It’s not quite a death knell on the novel, but it sure took some of the wind out of the sails for me.

One of Parker’s most used (debatably over-used) themes is that of a good man loving a bad/weak woman. While juggling that theme with the war against Bragg, something does get lost. A little disinterest kicks in, as well as wariness.

However, readers not overly familiar with Parker’s work may see this them as something new. Especially Western readers. And I’m pretty certain the movie crowd won’t have seen something this blatant.

But, since no one can move a story along the way Parker can, I kept my horse turned in the same direction as our heroes and galloped through to the end. I enjoyed the book a lot. Loved the dialogue and sarcasm. And I was glad I spent my free time with it. From what I've heard, he's presently working on a sequel.

I can’t wait for the movie to come out.

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