Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Blind Spot Stone

With the announcement earlier this year that Michael Brandman's turn with Jesse Stone in print was done, Robert B. Parker fans began to anticipate the Paradise police chief's initial patrol with Shamus Award-winner Reed Farrel Coleman at the wheel. Brandman had improved over the course of his three books, but not very much and not enough to satisfy Putnam and Parker's fans.

Blind Spot is Coleman's debut with Jesse, telling the story of how a reunion with Jesse's minor-league baseball team winds up connected to a murder and kidnapping in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Jesse has to uncover some things in his own past that he believed buried and done with as well as seek clues to solve the murder and find the missing young man. One problem is that the boy's father and lawyer seem a little too calm about the kidnapping. An old girlfriend, Kayla, will be another problem, and Kayla's attractive friend Dee could be as well.

Spot is much better written than any of the three Brandman Stone novels. As primarily a TV writer (he had helped produce the Jesse Stone television movies starring Tom Selleck), Brandman had some polish when writing dialogue but seemed a little lost with everything else. Spot is Coleman's 20th published novel and so he is much better able to create a completely realized novel and narrative. He uses part of Jesse's past as a tool for getting inside the character's head, and works within the broader canvas allowed in an omniscient third person voice in ways that a first person narrator can't. In fact, he does so in ways Parker may have wanted to do when he created the Jesse Stone novels but had not yet stretched himself out to do.

And now for the bad news. Other than the character and place names, there is very little in Blind Spot that makes me believe I'm reading about the Jesse Stone who first showed up in Night Passage in 1997. Coleman is talkative where Parker is taciturn, and even in the places where Jesse and other characters say something like they might have said at Parker's hands, they don't act like the people we've met.

Part of the blame is Parker's. Night Passage arrived as he was settling into a ten-plus year rut of stuff that might have been acceptable from many other authors but was junk compared to what he could do, meaning Jesse and company got some flickers of his talent but largely were victimized by an author doing what for him was more like retyping than writing. Thus Jesse lacks the definition of Parker's greatest character, Spenser, and he can't force his writer to portray him as he "really is," the way Spenser can. Instead, the writer fits Stone into his voice, rather than the reverse.

And part of the blame comes from a perfectly sensible decision by Coleman. Brandman had tried to write Parker but hadn't done very well at it. Robert Knott was more or less goofing off writing Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Ace Atkins, producing Spenser stories, seemed to have found the key to a successful series continuation by writing the characters instead of caricaturing the writer. Which left Coleman with few choices. Jesse wasn't as established as Spenser, meaning he offered a new writer fewer handles to use to grasp, understand and follow him the way the older character did. When you don't have a trail to follow, you have to make your own path, and Coleman has done so. Which we'll see wasn't a great choice this time around.

And even if Coleman could pull off a recognizable recreation of a Parker character, what would be the point when Atkins was already doing it? There are plenty of Parker fans who followed Spenser but couldn't care less about Jesse, Sunny Randall or Virgil and Everett. The reverse was not likely to be true, so little widespread acclaim would greet a return of a "real Jesse," even if that character could be found.

But Coleman doesn't help himself by spending so much time on the other characters. Parker may not have gone as far as he might have liked with the third-person narrative option, but Coleman spends way too much time with others in his cast, a group of low-end mobsters playing out a soapy storyline that might as well be taglined "Dese Are Da Days of Our Lives."

In short, Spot doesn't really show much of Paradise, Mass., and its police chief Jesse Stone, and what it does show doesn't much resemble either the town or the man we've encountered before. If his second book, projected for 2015, does the same and does it in the same kind of second-rate story, then in spite of his talent, recognition and top-level earlier work, Coleman's on his way to being an even bigger bust than Brandman.

No comments: