Sunday, December 2, 2012


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Appaloosa (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005).

I told myself that I was going to read all of Robert B. Parker's bibliography, and, despite the very long list of books, it hasn't been much of a challenge. His Spenser series started out in the early 1970s with surprisingly cerebral detective fiction despite the tough-guy leads, but the series peaked in 1981 with the excellent A Savage Place. There were occasional high points thereafter - 1993's very good Paper Doll, for example, returned the series from straightforward adventure novels and back into Chandler-inspired mystery. Adding two additional series, set in the same universe, didn't invigorate things as much as the author might have wished. It became amusing, in 2003, to have Jesse Stone, star of one series, enjoying a one-night stand with Rita Fiore, a regular supporting player in Spenser's world, and to have Sunny Randall, star of another, seek professional counseling from Spenser's girlfriend Susan, but at this point, after finishing 48 of 68(!) novels, I'm reading more for the occasional character beats than any surprises in the plots.

Helpfully, I know that I - slow reader that I am compared to some of my friends - can finish a Parker novel in about a day. Starting in the late 1990s, he started churning these books out at a frankly ridiculous rate, about one every three months. They had devolved into basic adventure before then, of course, but they were never so repetitive when Parker took his time with them. The worst part is the he-man psychology, wherein Susan and Spenser, or some other woman and Spenser, or Susan and whomever has the misfortune of falling in love with Hawk, have what feels like the millionth conversation about why these men do what they do, and why this occasionally means killin' folk.

Speaking of repetition, I don't know that I will ever understand why it was necessary for both Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall to both still be in love with their ex-spouses and seeking therapy. Try reading Shrink Rap and Stone Cold back to back sometime and tell me that the character moments are not identical.

I certainly didn't expect Parker's latter-day devolution into quickie, repetitive novels to bring that same psychology to the Old West. He'd indulged in the Western genre before, with 2001's pleasing Gunman's Rhapsody, and, four years later, introduced a new series set in the same period. There were four novels featuring the gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and the first, Appaloosa, was made into a feature film that starred Ed Harris and Viggo Morgenstern. Their schtick is that they're gunslingers who will clean up crime-ridden towns after being duly deputized and given the power to enact new bylaws at their whim. So when a powerful rancher and his gang of forty gunhands begins terrorizing the town of Appaloosa and killing the marshal, Cole and Hitch need to come up with a good plan to get the rancher to justice and, once he's tried, see that he makes it to prison before anybody else can spring him.

Cole finds the love of a good woman - no, that's not true, there's little that's good about Allie French - and it doesn't take long before, needing some pages to fill, they have detailed heart-to-hearts about why it is Cole and Hitch do what they do, and do it so well. There's not a lot of it, mind, but it reads as though, committed to finishing three or four novels every year, Parker was unable to change gears successfully and find anything new for men and women to discuss, or craft a leading man with the wit and levity that makes Spenser appealing. So when we do get into what passes for characterization here, it goes on for several very shallow pages - the eye-rolling, simplistic metaphor of stallions fighting over mares is about as subtle as an avalanche - while the actual action plot, when it gets going, is handled without passion or depth or, really, much attention at all. The climactic gunfight between our heroes and the Shelton Brothers seems to play out over about a third of a page.

At this point, it's only stubborn resolve that is keeping me with Parker, along with my own needs as a reader. While I find P.D. James, whom I am rereading, much more satisfying in every possible way, her novels are so dense, challenging, and complex that it's nice to have a simple palate cleanser between each of them. After two zero-challenge Parker books, I'm ready for something with meat on its bones. Not recommended, nor are about the nine books that came before it.

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