Robert B. Parker's Bull River

By Robert Knott

G.P. Putnam's Sons. 352pp. $26.95

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Paul Jablow


I first came across Robert B. Parker at an opportune time.

The Newspaper Guild was on strike in 1985 and I was looking for a light read for picket duty, which at my station at 13th and Callowhill Streets meant standing around rather than walking. A friend who taught a course in mystery novels at a local college suggested Parker's Spenser novels, and I bonded instantly with his private detective hero.

A former heavyweight boxer whose time in the ring seemed not to have affected his IQ, Spenser shared the last name of the 16th-century English poet, one of dozens of authors quoted throughout the books.

Spenser was devastatingly quick-witted, often toying verbally with opponents to provoke them into starting something that he would invariably finish. He had no first name - at least not one that Parker was willing to share with his readers - and an impossibly slender girlfriend. He was a wine connoisseur, a gourmet cook, and he could fix stuff.

I breezed through four or five of the novels before the strike ended and perhaps a half dozen more in the years that followed. It was formula stuff, but I loved it.

All told, Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels before he died in 2010, and a few others featuring small-town police chief Jesse Stone and two cowboy lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.

Deciding (probably not for artistic reasons, judging by Robert B. Parker's Bull River) that the author's series should live on, Parker's widow and two sons anointed other writers to churn out more of the books.

Actor and screenwriter Robert Knott was named to continue with Cole and Hitch. And if Robert B. Parker's Bull River is any indication, it probably should be shut down.

Knott has an unerring ear for Parker's cadence: Short, punchy chapters, clipped dialogue, and convoluted plot twists that are fun to anticipate but not impossible to follow.

In this case, we're talking about a Texas-to-Mexico trail with a bad guy assuming someone else's identity, an inside-job bank robbery, and another bad guy borrowed from jail to help track down even worse bad guys. Not bad at all, actually.

But what Knott totally seems to lack is Parker's facility for creating real characters with interesting inner lives and dialogue with any real pacing to it.

The exchanges between Cole, the marshal, and Hitch, his deputy and the book's narrator, take laconic to such an extreme that it comes off like a Saturday Night Live send-up of John Wayne:

Virgil looked at me and grimaced a bit.

"Is bad news," I said.

"Is," Virgil said.

Then there are questions about women, questions about killing people, and questions about the relationship between Cole and Hitch.

There is one brief tryst in the book, between Hitch and a stereotypical tough saloon broad type, but it is lost without context. We don't know if he's married, or what his general attitude toward women is. The section seems to have been stuffed in as an afterthought, like an embarrassed waiter bringing the bread he forgot, midway through the first course.

The violence doesn't work, either. Detectives and law enforcement types in novels don't have to kill people. Sherlock Holmes did fine without it. But if you're going to do it, at least make it interesting and let the reader know what the killer thinks about it.

Spenser beats the giblets out of people, but with well-choreographed combinations that intersperse left hooks and right-brain reflections on the cosmic significance of the fight. Cole and Hitch just shoot people as if they were in some sort of video game. Once you've established that the protagonist is quicker on the draw than everyone else, your options are limited.

The Cole and Hitch pairing also doesn't work because the two are too much alike. There's nothing wrong with having the detective hero be a loner: Philip Marlowe did fine that way. But if you're going to couple them, there needs to be some differentiation, especially in status.

Think Holmes and Watson. Maybe, if you can deal with the political incorrectness of it, the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Better yet, Spenser and Hawk, the detective's street-talking ex-boxer buddy with none of the hero's self-examination but an amazing ability to read people and situations.

All in all, this whole concept is like a horse with a shattered foreleg. It needs to be put down, better to preserve the shining memory of Robert B. Parker's achievements.

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer editor and reporter.