River of Ruin presents an interesting question for the reader: Just when did Jack DuBrul write it? It's the fifth book featuring globetrotting mining engineer/geologist/tail-kicking adventurer Philip Mercer, released four years after DuBrul introduced Mercer to the world in Vulcan's Forge. Forge was a little ragged, a pretty obvious case of a novelist writing early in his career: A little too much exposition and some sore-thumb-style characterization and backstory. DuBrul's style smoothed out over time, and he's now the best of the collaborators used by adventure novelist franchise Clive Cussler. River has some smoothness in parts, especially in the action set pieces (more on those in a minute) but it's also saddled with backstory and with some brutally amateurish characterization attempts. It's almost as though River might have been the first Mercer manuscript DuBrul completed, but held it back while putting out a better one. We meet Mercer at an auction of rare nautical manuscripts, alerted by a friend about a piece he's long desired being up for sale. But there are others interested in it as well, and they are willing to negotiate in a violent and bloody manner to acquire it. Some clues and a call from an old friend's wife lead Mercer to Panama, where he tries to piece together a puzzle involving the Panama Canal, hunts for legendary treasure and some very suspicious-looking Chinese military and espionage operations. In doing so, Mercer will have a nail-biting footrace through Paris sewers, a helicopter chase through twisted rain-forest canyons and mountains, a car chase inside a gigantic cargo ship in the canal and a race against the clock through the canal itself. The skill DuBrul shows in these sequences only makes its lack more apparent when Mercer pauses to reflect on what's happened to him and what it means. Those passages could have used some punching up as well, but all the same River is a great fun read, especially if you're by yourself so no one can hear you snicker at the especially clumsy parts.
Though Robert B. Parker died in January, his consistent work ethic meant that several more books were more or less finished by then and had yet to be published. Split Image is one of those, the ninth and probably final Jesse Stone novel. The police chief of Paradise, Mass., is trying to figure out how a Russian mobster's body ended up in the trunk of a car. The presence of other mobsters of various ethnicities and stages of retirement complicates matters, as does the presence of Boston private investigator Sunny Randall. Sunny is in her own series of books, but she and Jesse have overlapped before in an affair that ended because neither of them could move on from their respective ex-spouses. She's in Paradise hunting down the daughter of rich clients who believe their daughter has been brainwashed by a cult-like religious leader. Both Jesse and Sunny spend time on the couch with their respective therapists to conclude what exactly they had done wrong in their previous relationships, and also spend some time on various horizontal surfaces with each other. They achieve tentative breakthroughs that hint they might be able to build a future with each other, but Parker didn't go much further than hints. Both mysteries resolve. Jesse gets helped out by the dead mobster's widow, and Sunny locates the young girl and determines that she seems to be OK where she is. Parker may have been planning on combining the two series or at least using the two characters together in each other's books. While it's refreshing to see him stop using Jesse's ex-wife Jenn as The Whore Who Makes Jesse Think And/Or Drink, the front-and-center presence of relationships -- normal, a little bit off and in some cases downright twisted -- means we spend a lot of time on things other than our cases at hand. And the story upon which these therapeutic musings does hang is thin indeed. If this is the last Jesse Stone novel, it's a nice ending for Jesse and Sunny as well -- uncertain, but hopeful. If it's not, it'd be nice to hope Parker doesn't screw them up again for their respective exes like he's done more than once before.