Ironhorse is the first of the continuations of Robert B Parker's Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch series of westerns, and as with the Jesse Stone novels, the Parker estate chose someone connected with the on-screen adaptations of the books to continue the series. Robert Knott is an actor who appeared with Ed Harris in Pollock, and co-wrote (with Harris) and co-produced the movie Appaloosa. Unlike TV producer Michael Brandman's version of Jesse Stone (see my review here), which reflects the Tom Selleck films as much as Parker's, Knott sticks much closer to the characters of Cole and Hitch. But he has a harder time than Brandman of matching both Parker's tone and his narrative drive. This is not to put down either of the screen adaptations, which work fine on their own terms. But it's no coincidence that the best of the post-Parker Parkers has been done by Ace Atkins, charged with continuing Spenser (see my review here), not just because he's a novelist, but because he brings no previous adaptation to the table.
Ironhorse begins on a train, with Cole and Hitch returning from transporting two Mexican conmen back to their own country. As they pass through the Indian Territory, the train is held up, by a well-organised gang who are unaware of what a deadly mistake they have made in their choice. After being driven back, they uncouple Cole & Hitch from both the engine and the rear carriages, making a temporary getaway. With them are the governor, and his two daughters, one of whom has already thrown up sparks with Hitch.
So far so good, but from this point the story complicates greatly, moving back down the line to a corrupt mining town with a cat house on every corner, then back up the line, with sidetracks for shooting various varmints as they appear or re-appear. The problem is not so much the prolix detail about trains and engines, or indeed about Virgil and his cigars---at times it feels like he's posing for a 19th century version of Esquire—but more Knott's inability to draw in these many characters with the same broad but telling strokes that characterise Parker. Although many of them appear fascinating—not just the villains but two women and an Indian working on the railroad, a seemingly corrupt sheriff, a particularly adept whore named Rose, and of course the governor's daughters, a pair that matches perfectly Col. Munro's offspring in Last Of The Mohicans.
Instead of giving the villains, or these characters, the space they need to interact, the story bogs down in the middle, as our heroes plan, and get everything explained to them when one of the villains turns out to carry his press-cuttings with him. When the confrontations come, all of them, with the exception of the ultimate, become matter of fact—whereas Parker's shootouts are generally tests of personality.
Knott is good with Cole and Hitch, but once they get into analysis of Cole's relationship with Allie, who may or may not have taken up with a deputy while Cole has been away on marshal's business, there's something a bit too sensitive: Parker's Cole is another of the antitheses to Spenser; he's much closer to Stone, but without the ability to express whatever self-awareness he might have in regard to the opposite sex. There is no reason behind his love for Allie, yet he accepts its reality and thus acts as if there were, which for him is natural in the basic sense of the word. I'm not sure Knott gets that, or can follow the precision of Parker's portraits. But if he could maintain the tone and focus of his first third, he could produce a more fitting adaptation.
Robert B Parker's Ironhorse by Robert Knott
Berkeley Books, $9.99, ISBN 9780425267707