"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch novels by Robert B Parker


Cole & Hitch

 
While the late and very great Robert B Parker was best known, like Elmore Leonard, for his crime novels, especially those featuring Spenser or Jesse Stone, he also, like Leonard, wrote some fine Westerns.

Robert B Parker (1932 - 2010)
 
In 2001 he published Gunman’s Rhapsody, a tale of Wyatt Earp in 1879, and in 2005 the first Cole & Hitch story came out, Appaloosa.

It was excellent. So good, in fact, that it was rapidly made into a movie, Appaloosa (Groundswell, 2008) and that film is also extremely good. It follows the book very closely.

Before his death in January 2010, Parker wrote three more, Resolution (published 2008), Brimstone (2009) and Blue-Eyed Devil (2010).

The main attraction of these novels is of course the two central characters, Virgil Cole and his partner Everett Hitch. They do gun work. Usually they act as town-tamers, cleaning up treed or lawless communities, always strictly within the law – even if they do write the laws themselves.

Virgil is the boss. He is supremely good at what he does, apparently without fear, and like all good Western heroes taciturn, tough, proficient with guns but always acting according to his code of honor. He is uneducated, though he reads, carefully and slowly, in an effort to better himself. There is an amusing piece of ‘business’ throughout the stories as he struggles to build his vocabulary and slips unknowingly (though Everett knows) into malapropisms. The names Cole and Virgil (one could have added Morgan or Clay) are extremely useful in Westerns. They are redolent of Earps and Youngers.  To the cognoscenti the names signify gunman, tough-guy, lawman, possibly badman. Any combination will do, so the hero could have been Morgan Cole, Clay Morgan, and so on. Parker chose Virgil Cole and it works.
 
Everett (eight-gauge ready) waits as Virgil approaches
 
Everett, Virgil’s deputy, tells the stories in the first person. He is a former West Point Army officer who felt too constrained by military discipline and left to do scouting, prospecting, be a Wells, Fargo shotgun messenger and finally do gun work. His trademark is a long eight-gauge that sprays shot all over but he’s pretty handy with a Colt too. Educated, loyal, modest, he is the ideal foil for Virgil and ideal narrator.

The relationship between the two is funny, dry and crisp. Parker does buddy stories really well and if Spenser and Hawk had been around in the West they might have been just like Cole and Hitch.

Appaloosa

In Appaloosa we are introduced to the pair and there follows a classic story of a town (Appaloosa) treed by a brutal rancher, Randall Bragg, who has murdered the local town marshal, tough Jack Bell, who had come to arrest some of Bragg's hands for rape and murder. Said rape and murder in the town constitute a prologue. Elmore Leonard warned us against prologues but I don’t mind them. Actually, I use ‘em.
 
 
Vol 1
 
Cole and Hitch are hired on by the aldermen as town-taming lawmen and duly bring a (very) tough form of law ‘n’ order to the rough little town. The arrival of Mrs. French, Allie, in Appaloosa and Cole’s subsequent attraction to her (it’s almost an infatuation) complicates the issue. Allie is a great creation: she is basically a clever slut who inveigles her way into the heart (and bed) of whoever is the top dog at the time, be it marshal, hired gun or saloon owner. Virgil becomes increasingly aware of her shortcomings but still wants her as his wife.

Cole and Hitch arrest and imprison Bragg for the murder of Marshal Bell but Bragg hires two top-notch gunnies, the lethal Shelton brothers. Conflict is inevitable…

It’s a straight Western story, very well told, and the movie Ed Harris made of it does it full justice. As always, there are small changes in the film but nothing significant.

As with all the stories, much of the plot is developed in dialogue. Descriptive passages are kept to a minimum (it’s one of the reasons the books make such good films). The dialogue is spare, authentic and very enjoyable. The only slight lapse might be the rather heavy-handed symbolism of the appaloosa stallion, boss of the herd on the edge of town. But it’s a fairly short aside and doesn’t really get in the way.

There’s little arty or literary about these books. They are straight-down-the-line Western tales. But they are very well told. Like his heroes’ gun work, Parker makes it look deceptively simple. Can you have Quality Pulp as a genre? If you can, this is it.

Resolution

Resolution was the sequel to Appaloosa, a kind of episode 2. Everett has left Virgil, who is settled with Allie in Appaloosa, and drifted. He arrives in the town of Resolution and signs on as a shotgun lookout in a saloon. The saloon is run by a tough customer named Amos Wolfson who owns most of the town and aims to grab it all. After fifteen chapters, Virgil turns up. Allie has run off with another man, Virgil has killed him and thereby broken his own rule of always acting within the law. He is now a gunman like any other. He says he’ll hang around and keep company with Everett, so we have a curious situation in which Virgil is almost Everett’s sidekick rather than the other way round. But of course that gradually changes as Virgil gradually, imperceptibly assumes command.
 
Vol 2
 
The role of the Shelton brothers in Appaloosa, the two professional gunmen adversaries (adversities as Virgil calls them) who might be better even than Cole and Hitch, is this time taken by the shootists Cato and Rose. They are strong, distinct and memorable characters.

It’s a semi-Yojimbo plot, with two rival criminal gangs vying for control of the town and Cole and Hitch in the middle, alongside poor sodbuster settlers. The dumb Wolfson keeps on hiring gunmen who slip away from him, to be replaced by other gunmen who do the same. Everett says he’s like a rabbit hiring coyotes.

There’s quite an interesting meditation on the morality of what these samurai-gunmen are doing, led by Virgil who is feeling his way after losing his previous pretty straightforward moral compass, the law. As Cole and Hitch seem to be drifting away from legal peace-keeping towards freelance gun work, Cato and Rose appear to be going in the opposite direction.

Well, I won’t tell you how it pans out but I can reveal that the end of the book sets up Volume 3 as the partners head down to Texas in search of, you guessed it, Allie.

Brimstone

Brimstone, which was published in 2009, is another novel named after a town. Cole and Hitch head down to Texas and finally find Allie in a ratty town's rattiest brothel. They then get work as deputies in Brimstone, so they are lawing again. Of course it’s a rough town with two rival powers, this time Pike, an ex-Army saloon owner and Brother Percival, a crazed corrupt preacher. They are as obnoxious as each other. Allie has promised to reform but of course dallies with both. It’s amazing Virgil sticks with her but he does.
 
Vol 3
 
There’s a sub-plot of a Comanche out for revenge on Pike for having massacred women and children in his Army days. This Indian abducts a farmer woman and her daughter and sells them to Mexicans. Cole and Hitch rescue them with the aid of another character, Pony Flores, who is an Apache, well, half Apache anyway, a sympathetic type.

Of course the two would-be town bosses, each with a private army of gunmen, come to blows…

The end of the third volume brings Virgil, Everett and Allie back to Appaloosa, where the old gray stallion still rules his herd of mares. The final story is set up.

Blue-Eyed Devil

In Blue-Eyed Devil the saga comes full circle: it is set in Appaloosa. There is an Indian threat aspect of the story (the title refers to the Apaches’ way of describing white men) as Pony Flores’s brother, Kah-to-nay, leads a raiding party on the town to kill and rape its inhabitants and burn it to the ground.
 
Vol 4 - but not, as it turns out, the last
 
But essentially it is the mixture as before. This time the two rival powers are the new marshal, Amos Callico, an ambitious and unscrupulous politician using the post just as a stepping stone, and the retired Confederate General Laird, whose brattish son, Nicholas, makes the mistake of thinking he can out-gun Virgil Cole.

It all builds up to an excellent climax as Cole and Hitch side with a professional gunman, Chauncey Teagarden, whom the General has hired to avenge the death of his son, against the obnoxious Callico. Parker is good at these pro gunfighters who have their own code of honor and respect each other, even if on opposite sides. Another pair, from Resolution, join them in their fight: Cato and Rose join the party. With Pony and the general they make up the Mystical Western Number of seven.

Have you noticed how many Westerns feature the MWN of seven riders in a posse or gunmen or members of a gang? The Magnificent Seven is only the most famous example. There are many others. Next time you are watching a Western and a group of riders gallop across the screen, count. The odds are on there being seven. I think seven is the maximum number the average head can get round and yet they still remain distinct and memorable individuals. But it’s big enough to constitute a significant fighting force, a mini-army. It’s the goldilocks number for a posse.

As with the other books, Blue-Eyed Devil gives us the terse, wisecracking dialogue which advances the action. As with Elmore Leonard, pretty well the only verb used to describe utterances is an unadorned, adverbless said. Descriptive passages are kept to a minimum and there is no purple prose whatsoever. It’s tight as a drum.

The style has much in common with Robert B Parker’s crime novels, of course. I have referred before in this blog to the similarity between tough private-eye stories and Westerns. They both deal in lead, friend.

Doubtless, had Mr. Parker lived, we would have enjoyed further Cole and Hitch stories from his pen. But it was not to be. In fact, though, these four books, by chance or design, do make up an entity, a tetralogy. In any case, they are four excellent Westerns, a must for any fan of the genre.

The future

There’s a new novel out, marketed as Robert B. Parker's Ironhorse (Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch #5) by Robert Knott. I haven’t read it yet. Not sure I want to but I guess I probably will. Mr. Knott is described thus: “Chosen by the Estate of author Robert B. Parker to carry on the Cole and Hitch series of western novels, Robert Knott is an actor, writer, and producer. His list of stage, television, and film credits include the feature film Appaloosa based on the Robert B. Parker novel.
 
We'll see...
 
The blurb tells us:

For years, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch have ridden roughshod over rabble-rousers and gun hands in troubled towns like Appaloosa, Resolution, and Brimstone.  Now, newly appointed as Territorial Marshalls [sic], they find themselves traveling by train through the Indian Territories. Their first marshaling duty starts out as a simple mission to escort Mexican prisoners to the border, but when the Governor of Texas, his wife and daughters climb aboard with their bodyguards and $500,000 in tow, their journey suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

The problem is Bloody Bob Brandice.  He and Virgil have had it out before, an encounter that left Brandice face-down in the street with two .44 slugs lodged in him.  Now, twelve years later on a night train struggling uphill in a thunderstorm, Brandice is back – and he’s not alone.  Cole and Hitch find themselves in the midst of a heist with a horde of very bad men, two beautiful young hostages, and a man with a vendetta he’s determined to carry out
.

Well, we’ll see. Maybe we are in for a long series. Might not be a bad thing, though some of the reviews of Ironhorse have been less than glowing.

But why hasn’t Ed Harris made any more Cole and Hitch movies after Appaloosa? It’s most remixed of him, as Virgil might say. “He means remiss,” I said. “That’s right, remiss,” Virgil said.

 

6 comments:

  1. The Hitch/Cole novels are very fine, and the first is especially good.

    I had the good fortune of meeting Parker at a mystery weekend event many years ago, and can say that he was friendly, engaging and outgoing. It's always nice when writers one likes turn out to be real gents.

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    1. I bet he was. It shines through his books.
      Jeff

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  2. Thanks for this post, Jeff - I love the Jesse Stone books (and the movies) but I was unaware of Parker's westerns. I'll definitely give them a go, and track down "Appaloosa" on video.

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  3. Such a shame Mr. Parker only completed four of these classics before he left us. Having just discovered the series, and currently reading the last one of the four, I, like the writer, probably will read the Robert Knott ones at some time. If I don't get wrapped up in the "Parker would have never written it like that" attitude, and I may just enjoy them as well.

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    1. Hi there
      I haven't read the Knott ones yet - not sure why!
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

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