Brimstone, by Robert B. Parker — a book review

Brimstone

 

I am still a fan of the author Robert B. Parker, who passed away in 2010, leaving behind a bibliography approaching 70 novels. He is, perhaps, best known for his series featuring Boston private investigator Spenser. But he also wrote standalone novels, and other series books, such as those featuring female p.i. Sunny Randall and transplanted LA cop Jesse Stone.

And a four-book western series featuring gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.

Brimstone (2009) is the third book in the Cole & Hitch series that began with Appaloosa (2005) and continued with Resolution (2008). The fourth book in the series, Blue-Eyed Devil was published posthumously in 2011. I haven’t read that one yet, but I bet I will one day if I know myself at all.

I mention the previous books in the series for a couple of reasons. First, I read both long before I began posting reviews on this site, so you can’t get my decidedly slanted take on those particular novels by searching through my archives. And, second, I can’t for the life of me remember the plots of those two stories without doing an internet search, which I don’t intend to do today.

This isn’t such a remarkable thing. Nor is it further evidence that I’m sliding quickly into dementia. I’ve read a lot of books in my lifetime, many of which I’m sure I’ve forgotten entirely. For instance, I’ve read nearly all of Parker’s Spenser series. He published at least one of those a year since the mid-1970s. I would be hard-pressed to tell you the plot of even one of those right now.

However, I can tell you a lot about the characters in those stories. Spenser, of course, the gourmet chef and boxer and all-around macho good guy, with his best friend Hawk and lovely girlfriend Susan Silverman, and—-

And so forth. To me, this just proves I’m drawn to character-driven fiction, and that if I like the characters I’ll read anything just to spend a bit more time with them. I’ve written about this before somewhere.

It doesn’t mean that stories aren’t important, because, in the moment, they have to be interesting, engaging, suspenseful, thrilling, compelling—whatever adjectives are usually thrown around concerning the plots to our favorite stories. But, if the characters don’t become important to me, I probably won’t even finish reading the story. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less patient with authors who don’t understand this, and I’ve thrown more than a few books in the trash for this transgression. If you’re a true bookworm, as I am, this sad fact probably elicited a gasp from you. Trashing a book is only a notch below burning one, which is tantamount to sacrilege to a book nerd. I do toss them into the recycling bin, if that makes you feel any better.

I introduce all of this personal backstory just to say this. Even if I can’t remember the plots of the first two books in the Cole & Hitch series, which were mostly typical western fare as I recall, I do know the main characters. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are western fiction gunslinger archetypes. As a fan of the movie Tombstone (I’ve owned three copies of the DVD now—long story), I’ve always pictured a grizzled Sam Eliot as Cole, and, for some reason, a younger Kurt Russell as Hitch. But, feel free to cast the roles to suit your tastes. The two other fictional characters Cole and Hitch remind me of the most are Woodrow F. Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae, from Larry McMurtry’s excellent 1985 classic Lonesome Dove. I’m referencing the novel here because I’ve never watched the movie version. Weird, huh?

Cole is the larger-than-life superhero gunslinger and Hitch is his amanuensis, which is a fancy way of saying that Hitch is the point-of-view character, the person telling the story. In this regard, he is Watson to Cole’s Holmes, or Archie Goodwin to Cole’s Nero Wolfe. When another main character is being described as legendary, it’s helpful to use a companion character, such as Hitch, as the viewpoint. By inference, and comments made by Cole and other characters in the book, Hitch is also a superhero gunslinger, but is too modest to make such a claim for himself. It’s an effective fiction technique that you should feel free to use in your own work.

Another main character in this particular novel is the love of Virgil Cole’s life, Allie French. She has been in all of the novels I’ve read so far, and I’ve never liked her. I don’t think I’m supposed to. There are descriptive words that fit her character perfectly that I can’t use without sounding like a misogynistic, male chauvinist pig. We’ve all known people who were madly, inexplicably, in love with a person who was just wrong for them. This is the way I feel about the dynamic between Virgil and Allie. It seems she’s always having to be rescued by Cole (and, by association, Hitch), but she’s certainly no Penelope Pureheart.

The main plot of this novel involves a conflict between a saloon owner and a revivalist preacher in a town named Brimstone. The plot is complicated by Allie French’s involvement with Brother Percival, the preacher, and his militant brand of Christianity, and also by a revenge backstory featuring the saloon owner, Pike, who was an outlaw gang leader before he allegedly went straight, and a Comanche brave called Buffalo Calf. Again, not wholly atypical western fare.

I’ll admit that it’s the thread about Cole and Allie that somewhat modernizes the story, keeps it from falling entirely into cliché. But, it’s my least favorite part of the story. Which suggests that I might be a cliché myself.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. If you’re already a fan of Robert B. Parker, I don’t have to tell you what to expect. He is a quick read, with a lot of dialogue, and his approach to storytelling is almost minimalist. Like most of his novels, this one feels lighter and more airy than the subject matter. I’ve always equated Parker’s books to movie theater popcorn drenched in that liquid gold they call melted butter. Little in the way of nutritional value but very satisfying in the moment, while we’re being entertained.

Firewater’s Writers-of-the-Purple-Page Report Card: B

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This one won’t change your worldview, but it will help you pass the time.

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