Monday, September 24, 2018

Page Parade

Jesse Stone is back in Paradise after two months in a rehab facility in his native Arizona. Committed to dealing with his alcoholism, he's unsure exactly how he might do that back in a familiar environment and facing familiar pressures. When a young African-American woman is attacked on the beach and signs from the crime point to a case Jesse handled after he moved to Paradise, the pressure increases. Race-related vandalism only raises the temperature, and things teeter on the brink of exploding when one of Jesse's own officers, herself a young African-American woman, is involved in an officer-related shooting that seems to have its own racial motives. The usual suspects of outside agitators make their appearance and Jesse is kept at arm's length from the investigation. But there are too many coincidences, and he puts together a shadow team to check into some aspects of the whole series of events that match up a little too perfectly. Holding his town -- and himself -- together will test Jesse's newly-won sobriety for certain but may make it -- and him -- short-lived.

After the debacle of Debt to Pay, it became tough to justify buying any more of Reed Farrel Coleman's Jesse Stone series. We may pause to give thanks for libraries, who fall on that grenade for us. The second writer to continue Robert B. Parker's stories of the troubled police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, Coleman had not only not overcome the problem of writing one of Parker's less-developed characters, he had delivered an ungainly stinker of a story to boot. Hangman's Sonnet was not nearly as bad, but it didn't offer much reason to believe that Coleman would actually ever find a good way to marry his much less laconic and sparse style with the few features of Jesse Stone Parker had actually been able to outline.

In Colorblind, Coleman actually seems to make some steps forward in that area. He still writes a dozen words where Parker might have written a pair, and a couple of key features of the plot make a little too much out of coincidence themselves. But when he's writing Jesse's own words or narrating his thoughts, he does manage to offer some of the terseness that was Parker's own stock in trade. The storyline is significantly stronger than Coleman's earlier Stone outings, even if it seems a little too flashy for one of Parker's characters. But the choice to actually cast Jesse as an alcoholic and have him deal with that situation and its consequences gives Coleman a handle to use to move Jessie somewhere -- something that Parker himself never managed to do.
By 1999, Robert Crais had settled in to a solid routine for his wise-cracking Los Angeles private investigator, Elvis Cole, and Cole's friend, the taciturn tough guy Joe Pike. As L.A. Requiem opens, life for Elvis has been moving fairly well also, as his girlfriend Lucy Chenier and her son have moved to Los Angeles as well for her new job.

When Pike calls Elvis for help he's surprised to learn of Pike's connection to a Los Angeles political string puller named Frank Garcia -- Pike was in a serious relationship with Frank's daughter Karen, who's missing. Before Elvis and Pike can make much headway in trying to find her, she turns up dead. Now Frank wants the pair involved in the investigation, too, much to the consternation of the Los Angeles Police Department. They don't have much use for Cole, but they absolutely hate Pike for what they believe to be his role in the death of his former partner when Pike was a member of LAPD. When suspicion in Karen's death falls on Pike, they are only too happy to try to arrest him or worse, with Elvis caught in the current. Lucy hasn't really been connected to Elvis when things are this rough, and she finds herself uneasy when it seems his loyalties weren't what she had imagined.

Requiem upgrades the complexity level of the Cole-Pike series considerably, offering us some of our first looks behind Pike's mirrored shades. Much of the conflict in earlier novels was mostly external, but now Elvis finds himself on unfirm ground internally as well. He may not have known much about Pike, but he was certain about what he thought he did know. His relationship with Lucy seemed clearly moving forward, but now he finds that he may not be able to offer her some things she wants from that relationship -- nor can he change who he is in order to do so. The unexpectedly deep and layered character drama elevates L.A. Requiem enough that the rather drawn out and shakily-built ending don't really harm it as much as it might have one of the other, more plot-driven novels in the series.
Sean Parnell's first book, Outlaw Platoon, was a nonfiction account of his time fighting in Afghanistan and was well-received for its deep dive into the lives and minds of the men with whom he fought for his country. But, as he says in his acknowledgments section, he also had an idea for a novel, and the success of Outlaw Platoon got him in the door of an agent and publisher for Man of War.

Eric Steele is one of the Alphas, a clandestine set of operatives who handle particularly rough jobs to achieve US intelligence and military objectives. They often operate outside established guidelines and are answerable only to the highest levels of the administration. After finishing a mission, Eric learns that one of his own former contacts and friends has gone missing -- along with the portable nuclear device he created. He's tasked with finding out what happened and recovering the nuke. But he learns that his opponent is Nate West, his own mentor and trainer believed to have died in an explosion set by the allies of one of the many men West had killed or captured. Only Nate didn't die, he wants revenge on the administration officials who he believes set him up, killed his family and almost killed him and he has a nuclear device to do it. With the initially unwilling and unwelcome assistance of CIA agent Meg Harden, Steele and his handler Demo have to figure out Nate's next move and stop him before he can get hold of a way to detonate his deadly new prize.

Parnell has a great wealth of technical knowledge and the way that technology has shifted some parts of modern warfare. He writes a great action scene, injecting a sort of swashbuckling attitude into his combat that a lot of other espionage thriller writers either won't or can't do. Both hero and villain have the proper swagger one expects of the well-trained badass, and Meg is no slouch in that department herself.

The story surrounding those scenes is a lot weaker, and the characters other than those on the sharp end a lot shallower and cartoonish. Nate's backstory may have been meant to lend him some sympathy and pathos, but he's basically a too much of a one-note evil sadist for it to work. One of the key behind-the-scenes villains is a woman in a high position of authority whose ambition to succeed a weak president led to disaster for some of those serving under her -- and who's a predatory lesbian to boot. A plotline regarding the health of the president and the way the vice-president is being forced to carry more and more of the weight of guiding Steele's mission has some nice personal touches but adds more fog than focus.

Man of War offers some hints that Parnell might be able to create an intriguing series with Steele and serves up some potentially interesting characters. With one novel under his belt he may have learned some things he wants to do differently in order to rely less on stereotypes and pet peeves and more on more realistically drawn non-protagonists. If he doesn't, there's no shortage of better series and better characters to occupy a reader's time. But if he does he might place a solid new set of reads into the pipeline.


Brian J. said...

Is that the first time read of L.A. Requiem or a re-read?

I know you've read further in the series.

Friar said...

First time -- I came to this series out of order, which I don't always like to do but it wound up happening that way.

I think there's probably a couple I haven't read yet, in fact, but I'd have to look at the list.

Brian J. said...

My beautiful wife was an early fan, so I'm fortunate enough to have them in order.

It's more important with a series with a lot of series business, but I suppose that afflicts a lot of series that are plenty episodic and mostly safe from that, like the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain.