Robert Knott and his friend Ed Harris helped bring itinerate frontier lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch to thrilling life on the big screen in 2008 when they co-wrote and co-produced a great film adaptation of Robert B. Parker's “Appaloosa,” with Harris directing and starring as Cole, and Viggo Mortensen playing Hitch.
Now, with the passing of Parker in January 2010, Knott is keeping the characters alive in print with “Ironhorse” (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $26.95), the Oklahoma-born actor's first novel and the fifth installment in the Cole/Hitch series.
It finds Cole and Hitch, recently appointed territorial marshal and deputy, respectively, traveling by train through the Indian Territories after delivering Mexican prisoners to the border. It's an uneventful ride home from routine duty until train robbers start swarming the cars, bullets begin flying, and the gun-handy lawmen start putting down outlaws and throwing their bodies from the train.
It turns out the Texas governor and his wife and two daughters are on board, guarded by Pinkertons because they've brought along $500,000, and a large contingent of bad men is looking to make easy money. They are led by Bloody Bill Brandice, who has an old score to settle with Virgil.
Parker, best known for his contemporary crime novels featuring a detective named Spenser, was a master of lean, mean prose who had only lately — and with excellent results — tried his hand at Westerns with these two horse-mounted characters, classic men-of-few-words with fast guns.
Having written a screenplay based on one of those Westerns doesn't necessarily qualify one to write a novel that rises to Parker's standards, and Knott tries a bit too hard to keep the dialogue and descriptive writing clipped and snappy, with two- and three-page chapters that divide short scenes into too many pieces.
Still, the depth of Knotts' historical research lends sharp realism to a story one wants to stick with to the end (his detailed descriptions of the train, the rail system, the 19th-century Oklahoma landscape and other period minutia are fabulously vivid), and it's easy to see this narrative being turned into a screen sequel to “Appaloosa,” which Knott has said he's determined to make happen. This book could make a terrific movie if Harris and Mortensen climb aboard again.
— Gene Triplett