When I reviewed Ironhorse, the first of Robert Knott's continuations of Robert B Parker's Cole & Hitch westerns, I said I thought that the book lacked space for the heroes and villains to interact (you can read the whole review here), meaning a promising set-up is allowed to peter out. Bull River suffers from almost exactly the same problem, which is a shame because the set-up is, if anything, even better.
Virgil and Everett have captured a bizarre Mexican bandit known as Capitan Alejandro, and when they deliver him to San Cristobal they discover the local bank has been looted by its own president, who later turns up beaten comatose, with his wife disappeared or kidnapped by the actual robbers, after a Friends Of Eddie Coyle-style robbery. Which puts Cole & Hitch on the hunt, and coincidentally enough, the Capitan knows the robbers and where they might be.
As in the first novel, we then get a lot of traveling, back and forth, and not really enough tension and precious little confrontation. You can see where the former is waiting to build, especially when the boys are on a train with a Mexican officer who's clearly suspicious, but it never really does, and both the major shootouts are relatively perfunctory, because with Parker they were all about personality, and expressed verbally, whereas here they are diagrammed and drawn, in both sense of the latter word.
More important, however, is the interplay of Cole and Hitch. Everett Hitch narrates, telling Cole's story more than his own, but these two are not like Spenser and Hawk as much as they are the two parts of Spenser: the ego (Cole) and super-ego (Hitch) moderating the gunfighter's id. It's important to get that dynamic expressed in their conversations, but Knott's not able to do that, not even in the other situation where the two express different parts of the Spenserian being: relations with women. Even when Hitch relaxes comfortably with another of the 'liberated' women he seems to encounter regularly, we don't get the obvious contrast with Cole's relationship with Allie French. This lack is striking, because the bank president's wife could well be another Allie, and you would expect that possibility to be noted more than in passing.
Cole & Hitch are such a good pair of characters, and so well delineated by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, that their personalities, even the shadow of them, can carry a story enough to keep the reader going. But there isn't the frisson of doubt that Parker managed; the nature of Hitch's protective worry, the slight hint of self-doubt that Allie brings about in Virgil. I miss that.
Bull River by Robert Knott
Berkeley Books $9.99 ISBN 9780425272305