Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Writing Dead

Of the three "zombie Parker" series that other authors have continued since Robert B. Parker's death in 2010, Ace Atkins writing the "Spenser" series has consistently written the best books as well as done the best job of capturing the characters that Parker wrote. With Cheap Shot, his third outing with Parker's signature Boston private investigator, Atkins continues to find his groove in continuing Parker's characters as well as building with and on them.

New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood is feared on the field, but off it tries to be a devoted family man to his son from a previous marriage. The team hires Spenser to see who may be behind what might be attempts to intimidate Heywood or provoke him into some sort of tabloid-fodder meltdown. But then Heywood's son Akira is kidnapped, and Spenser now has to contend with an image-conscious team, a grieving and distraught family and a whole lot of attention from both media and federal law enforcement. Good thing Spenser has Hawk and his apprentice Zebulon Sixkill, "Z," to watch his back and add some muscle when he needs to confront force with force.

Beginning with his initial Spenser outing Lullaby, Atkins seemed to have made the decision to try to write the character Spenser rather than try to write like Robert B. Parker. The Parkeresque narrative, dialogue and wit, he may have reasoned, would flow from the characters themselves. It has not been a completely smooth transition, but each time out Atkins seems to have some more confidence in his take on the characters as well as his ability to do his own things with them. He's helped by the way that Parker's own last two or so outings with Spenser were significant bouncebacks from years of dull and lackluster predecessors: Parker hooked readers into caring about Spenser again, and Atkins can capitalize on that.

He still has some work to do. His plots twist once or twice too often, and he does not yet have a really firm handle on Spenser's friend Hawk. But he is producing some work with depth and reflection, something Parker in his prime did better than almost anyone, and so makes another outing with this vision of Spenser a worthwhile one.
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On paper, Michael Brandman was the best positioned of the Parker Corps for success. Jesse Stone had a fairly high visibility because of several good CBS made-for-TV movies about him starring Tom Selleck. The Stone novels had yet to see any of that late-career rebound showing up in the Spenser series. And Brandman had worked closely with Parker in making the Jesse Stone movies.

The only problem was that Michael Brandman had never written a book in his life, and his inexperience showed. His extensive history in television included a lot of writing, but screenplays and novels are different beasts. Brandman's first Stone novel, Killing the Blues, had a pale echo of Parker-styled speech from Stone and other characters. But as you might expect from a writer who has spent years relying on the camera to establish scenes, set moods and create tones for characters and what they say, the dialogue was the best part. Almost everything else was clunky and bland, neither setting a scene very well or flowing with any rhythm or smoothness of its own. By 2013's  Damned if You Do, Brandman's third Stone novel, that part of his writing had improved but was still below average -- let alone anywhere close to what Parker himself produced. His style and descriptive language still rely heavily on assistance from what the camera will show -- only in novels, there's no camera available.

In Damned, Jesse and his Paradise police department investigate the murder of a young woman found in a seedy hotel. Her long-term history will have an impact on Jesse and her short-term history will uncover a sort of bidding war between two vicious prostitution rings, either of whom would be much happier if a certain small-town police chief either let the matter go or vanished from the earth. Jesse also digs into potential mistreatment of a friend living in a long-term residential care facility and acquires enemies as ruthless as the pimps, even if they use lawyers and multimillion-dollar bank accounts instead of fists and firearms.

Damned is not a bad story and if it either featured Brandman's own characters or had been his first essay at bringing Parker's characters back to life it would earn him a second look from a lot of publishers. But it was neither of those things, and so starting this year, three-time Shamus Award winner Reed Farrell Coleman will take over the telling of what goes on in Paradise, Mass., and in the life of its police chief Jesse Stone. It may be small consolation to Brandman, but he did finish his Stone turn with better work than he started. But time and Putnam wait for no man.
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On the other hand, actor/screenwriter Robert Knott's second turn with Parker's Old West lawmen, Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch warrants an immediate buyout of whatever contract the publisher signed with him. Knott's first Cole and Hitch novel, Ironhorse, was a run-of-the-mill Western that could have been written by any reasonably competent author and which would have been no different if its leads had been lawmen Dole and Fitch. That's not all on Knott; aside from the first two books in the series Parker himself did little to make the lawmen stand out from their crowded field.

But as shrug-worthy as Ironhorse was, it's light-years better than the convoluted and contrived plot, lifelessly flat and wooden characters, nauseating dialogue and pulled-out-of-the-author's-hat endgame that Knott foisted on Putnam and the Parker estate with Bull River.

Cole and Hitch have caught up with a Mexican national wanted for murder in the United States. But no sooner do they get him to jail for trial than they learn that the town's largest bank has been robbed -- by its own president. He shows back up worse for wear, but neither the money, the robbers nor the bank president's pretty wife are anywhere to be found. And the president himself may not be everything he's claimed to be. Cole and Hitch partner with local lawmen and a couple of surprise allies to chase down the money and the fugitives.

Bull River has none of Parker's narrative sassiness and the Cole-Hitch interchanges plod with so little life and verve you'll want to check your own pulse after reading them. The truth of the bank president's connection to the robbers and the bandit Cole and Hitch capture at the beginning of the book comes out gradually -- perhaps meant to seen like peeling back the layers like in an onion. But it happens in such a stuttering stop-and-start manner that it seems a lot more likely Knott had no idea where he was going until a few pages before he got there. He overshoots the usual Parker page count by about sixty, much of that because he recycles conversations and character interactions several times.

River can't even keep its own clich├ęs straight -- the Mexican robber is said at the novel's opening to speak excellent English but his dialogue varies from almost pidgin to Republic serial stereotyping to semi-standard 21st century English, and he switches between using a first-person pronoun and talking about himself in the third person with no apparent reason. It also comes with plenty of typos and dropped words -- Virgil asks if a character named Comstock is connected to the Nevada silver mining strike called the "Comstock Load" before he and Everett make fun of the man's weight by referring to him as a load. Of course, the pun doesn't work if you write the wrong homonym and you don't call it the "Comstock Lode," since lode is the actual word for a vein of ore.

But we shouldn't be too hard on the editor. He or she probably didn't want to read this all that closely either.

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