Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tome Trio

Before he was tapped to continue Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, Ace Atkins had started a series character of his own, former United States Army Ranger Quinn Colson. Colson has returned to Jericho, his small hometown in Mississippi and wound up as the sheriff. Although he's been away for some years, he has deep roots in the community.

So does corruption, and it's against those roots that Quinn has to work when he deals with the different crimes that come his way. In The Broken Places, he finds himself against three prison escapees who once hid some money in the rural areas of his county and are back to get it. Some snags in the plan mean they have to meet up with another former inmate who now leads a new church in town. And who happens to date Quinn's sister.

Atkins has a long view of his series in mind, unpeeling different layers of Tibbehah County's shenanigans and shenaniganeers with each book (Broken Places is the third Colson story). So while much of the time is spent dealing with the escapees, the murderer-turned-minister and sundry issues related to them, there's also some effort spent on the long-term issues the county faces. Atkins has a smooth style well-flavored with wry and keeps his characters flawed enough to be interesting without compromising the reader's investment in them. A longtime resident of the deep South, he deals respectfully but clearly with the society's features: Not every religious person is a bigoted ignorant hypocrite, but many of the folks of Jericho, religious or otherwise, have yet to confront the reality of the impact of racial prejudice on their daily lives.

There's still a lot to see in Tibbehah County, and in The Broken Places, Atkins offers a convincing reason to make the trip again.
When Stephen King talks in interviews about the kinds of books he likes to read, horror does not dominate the list as one might expect. Some of his favorites were good old-fashioned hard-boiled crime fiction like that featured in the cheap pulp paperbacks of the 1950s and 1960s. Starting in 2004, the folks at Hard Case Crime publishers have had some fun reprinting some of the best of that work, in addition to new novels in the same theme. King himself published The Colorado Kid under the Hard Case imprint in 2004, and has offered up another in the series with Joyland.

Devin Jones is a college student in Maine in the early 1970s who would like to become a writer (we may assume King knows how to write such a character) and who takes a job at a coastal amusement park one summer. Partly a way to earn needed funds and partly a way to escape the reality that his girlfriend is leaving him an inch at a time, Devin finds himself drawn into the world of the "carnies," seasonal and long-time park employees who develop their own communities on the fringes of the society that comes to them for entertainment. He also finds a mystery -- a young woman, killed while on one of the park rides but whose murder leaves absolutely no clues -- and two friends, Annie Ross and her son Mike. Mike has a form of muscular dystrophy and a lingering case of pneumonia made worse by his condition.

King unwinds his mystery gradually, keeping his trademark supernatural elements very light (the dead girl's ghost haunts the park) until close to the resolution of the matter. Rather than being a straight crime novel, Joyland is more of Devin's coming-of-age story, revolving around his growing obsession with the death of the young woman at the park and his friendship with Annie and Mike. The constraints of the Hard Case format keep King from turning it into a thousand-page doorstop and make it one of the more enjoyable reads from this part of his career.
Ace Atkins has done fine work continuing Parker's Spenser and Michael Brandman has been dismal continuing the late author's Jesse Stone character. So how does actor Robert Knott do with Parker's western lawmen Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole in his initial outing, Ironhorse?

Not badly, but Ironhorse does leave a question that we'll get to in a minute. Cole and Hitch are on a train headed back to the town of Appaloosa after taking a prisoner south to Mexico. They were going to ride back, but Cole got a telegram saying his longtime love Allie French might be unfaithful to him. So Knott gets Parker's seemingly endless disdain for Allie right, anyway.

A gang of outlaws tries to hijack the train in what at first seems to be an ordinary robbery but which will unspool into a much more elaborate scheme. Cole and Hitch are ready for either, of course, and as they begin opposing the villains they will find out just how deep the scheme goes and whether or not their usual toughness and tenacity will be able to dispatch the bad guys while protecting the good ones and innocents.

Knott does a decent job of capturing Cole and Hitch's laconic style and character (even though they seem to need to tell everyone they meet that they'll succeed because they are lawmen and bad business like this is what they do), but since that feature dominates in a lot of Westerns it's not like climbing Pike's Peak. His story is fine, but seems a little stuffed with schemery; after one false resolution too many you might start expecting to see Dr. Miguelito Loveless show up. Ironhorse is also a little stuffed period; someone needs to point Knott towards the difference between Parker's average Cole and Hitch page count (297) and his (371).

The real question, though, is whether or not there's any reason for Ironhorse to be a Cole and Hitch novel. It's a pretty good Western and it's better written that a lot of them, but Parker really hadn't had the chance to give the pair anything to set them apart from a host of other slow-talking, quick-shooting stalwarts who will do what has to be done when no one else will do it. Sure, the root reason is that if Putnam prints pieces of paper with Parker's name on them then we will give them pieces of paper with Andrew Jackson's face on them. But unless Knott does something more (and in terms of story tightening, something less) with them, there's no more reason to buy subsequent editions than there would be to buy Sackett novels written by Sam Elliott.

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