Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are itinerant lawmen who have spent 20 years taming lawless towns throughout the West. In “Ironhorse,” by Robert Knott, they come up against an outlaw gang more formidable than any they have faced before.
Cole and Hitch were created by novelist Robert B. Parker before his untimely death in January 2010.
The writer of more than 50 books was best known for the character Spenser, a Boston private eye, who was the protagonist of the mid-1980s TV show “Spenser: For Hire” starring Robert Urich.
Another series Parker created featured police chief Jesse Stone, which has been made into several recent TV movies starring Tom Selleck.
Before he died, Parker wrote four books recounting the adventures of Cole and Hitch, the first of which was adapted into the 2008 feature film Appaloosa starring Ed Harris and Vigo Mortensen. Knott co-wrote the screenplay for the movie with his friend Harris, who also directed.
In “Ironhorse,” Knott continues where Parker left off. Virgil and Everett have been appointed federal marshals. Their first assignment is to escort two Mexican con artists back to Mexico.
After delivering their prisoners they travel north through the Indian Territories (Oklahoma). The train they’re riding on is hit by a gang of ruthless outlaws led by a mysterious, bloodthirsty killer and mastermind whom Cole shot and sent to prison years before. Complicating the situation is the fact that the governor of Texas, his wife and daughters are also onboard, as well as $500,000 in cash. The two marshals find themselves in the midst of a heist contending with vicious bandits, two young hostages and a psychotic killer out for revenge.
Everett, Virgil’s deputy and the narrator of the series, is a West Point graduate and former cavalry officer. He is a man who is comfortable with the person he has become and is aware of his strengths and weaknesses.
He is content in following the life of a gunman for hire to the law. In contrast Virgil, who has been a peace officer his entire adult life, is a man who is in the process of bettering himself by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson and improving his vocabulary. Unfortunately, his choices of big words are not always correct. While both men are able lawmen and expert gunfighters, Virgil is more of a true believer in the law. “We have been doing this kind of work a long time. We are good at it. It’s what we do,” Virgil tells a distraught woman on the held-up train.
Knott’s effort is somewhat mixed. The story itself was entertaining enough in its own right but as a continuation of Parker’s work, it was slightly disappointing. To be fair, any writer who steps into the shoes of another to carry on a well-regarded series is never going to please everyone. The Spenser and Jesse Stone books have also been continued with uneven results. Parker was known for a sharp style and an adept blend of action, suspense and dialogue. Knott attempts to duplicate Parker’s approach but does not quite pull it off.
In much of his writing, Parker explored certain themes, such as love, loyalty and personal honor. Virgil and Everett are men of few words who prefer to let their actions do the talking. Nevertheless, through Parker’s use of snappy dialogue, the reader could understand their friendship and the moral codes that drive them. Knott avoids doing much in the way of examining these themes. Instead he wrote a straightforward robbery, manhunt, hostage, rescue story.
The repartee that gave insight into the characters has been replaced by ordinary banter.
Parker was also known for setting a fast pace to his stories but Knott slows down the plot several times with details of 19th century technology, including lengthy discussions on trains and telegraphs.
As an amateur historian, I can appreciate the research he brought to the story but much of it was unnecessary in furthering the plot.
“Ironhorse” is Knott’s first novel. Hopefully his next book, which was hinted at in the story, will return the series to the themes created by Parker. He wrote an acceptable Western but it does not live up to the standards of the master.
Darren L. Ivey is a Manhattan firefigher and a Manhattan resident.