For fans of Robert Parker’s western series about Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, there is a new book out in the series. Since Parker died a couple of years ago, Ironhorse (or, the full title, Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse) is written by someone else, Robert Knott. Generally speaking, I haven’t encountered many series that have carried on effectively after the death of their original author, and, in fact, I can’t think of another book written by someone carrying on a series other than Ironhorse that I’ve actually completed. Robert Knott was one of the screenwriters for the Appaloosa film, so he brings a knowledge of the characters—and the experience of writing about those characters—to the novel, and perhaps that’s why the book ends up being a successful continuation of the series.
Much of the action in the book takes place in two locations, on board a steam locomotive that has been overtaken by bandits, and in the small frontier town of Half Moon Junction, where Cole and Hitch trace the would-be robbers (who have successfully kidnapped a couple of hostages that they are holding for ransom). Part of what is interesting about the novel is the attention to the details of both steam locomotive and telegraph operation—and those details are of importance to the plot. Half Moon Junction is a weird little frontier town (all the streets are named after phases of the moon) that is quite in keeping with Parker’s approach to the western, and I particularly like the group of women telegraph operators (all of whom have male names) who play a supporting role.
For me, the weakness of the series is Allie French, the love of Virgil Cole’s life, who I find to be a stereotyped and one-note (she’s promiscuous) character. In most of the books, I’ve started thinking about her more as a Plot Device than a character, which is actually fine with me, as her shenanigans usually lead Virgil into interesting plots. In Ironhorse, she’s an off-stage presence, and I’m glad she stayed that way.
I’ve written about the Parker series before, especially the final book written by Parker, Blue-Eyed Devil. What I most liked about Blue-Eyed Devil are two elements of the series that don’t really make it into Ironhorse. Although like the other novels, Everett Hitch is the narrator of Ironhorse, we don’t get into his consciousness as much as we do in the Parker novels. As a narrator of Ironhorse, he’s more of an objective observer reporting on the action than he is a commentator or thinker on what he sees. Which is fine, because the action is good and fast-paced, but I missed the dry observations and commentary that sprinkle Hitch’s narration in the Parker novels. Also, other than the opening scene where Hitch and Cole discuss philosopher Charles Peirce’s theory of pragmatism (they both had just read an article about Peirce in the newspaper), there’s not much emphasis on Cole’s surprising interest in new words. It makes a kind of sense that a man who can go for hours without speaking is nonetheless intently interested in words—when he does speak, you know his words count for something, so all the more need for precision of language. Cole is interested in the word pragmatism, because he realizes that when it comes to Allie French, a pragmatist is exactly what he is not. That discussion of pragmatism was a nice nod to that element of the novels, but I missed the extended discussions between Hitch and Cole over what a particular word means, how it’s supposed to be used, and to see how often Cole misuses it as he tries to work it into his vocabulary.
Still, those aren’t really flaws in Ironhorse, just differences that I noticed, and I can’t complain too much about a book that kept be turning pages all the way through, and, it was good to spend time with Hitch and Cole for awhile.