I’ve been a fan of Robert B. Parker’s novels since 1978, which might be part of the problem with his latest offering, Stranger in Paradise. I love the author’s writing style, his usual commentary on society and the individual, and his one-liners. All of those are present in the latest book, but in some ways too many of the same plots are revisited in this one.
This is the seventh Jesse Stone novel. Stone is a former Los Angeles policeman turned drunk turned small town Paradise, Massachusetts police chief. He’s also struggling through working out a relationship with his ex-wife Jennifer, which has been one of the on-going subplots of the series. That particular subplot has gotten a little irritating at times because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but constantly looms over every book. Tom Selleck plays the Jesse Stone character in a series of on-going television movies.
The book had a lot of potential. Wilson Cromartie, a villain from an earlier book, puts in an appearance to tell Jesse he’s going to be around town for a while. Ten years ago, Crow – the name he’s called throughout the book – was part of an armed robbery gang. At the end of that, Crow chose not to harm the women hostages the gang had, but managed to escape with ten million dollars.
This time around, Crow is in town working on a case, looking for the daughter of a big-time Mafia guy in Florida. I really enjoyed the way Crow and Jesse got a feel for each other and acknowledged how dangerous the other could be. When it comes to pared-down prose and tough guys, nobody delivers the goods the way Parker does.
As it turns out, Amber Francisco is a fourteen-year old mess being raised by her white trash mother. I didn’t quite see how the mother went from living the high lifestyle in Florida to living a life barely getting by in Paradise, but I went with it. In addition to living the poor lifestyle, Amber has also hooked up with a young, violent Latino gang in the area.
Parker plays fast and loose with the plotting. Several things are going on throughout the novel. The past encounter with Crow threads throughout, but I’m not quite sure I’m willing to buy everything Parker promotes this time. One of the things that most jarred me was the attraction to Crow by one of the former hostages from that armed robbery ten years ago. Parker sets Crow up to be this sexual fantasy figure for that woman and they have a “one-time deal” encounter.
Not only that, but Crow’s sexual magnetism wins over the one character in this series that I thought would never stray outside her marriage. Parker has explored the nature of sex and attraction throughout this series, and I’ve gone along with it. But, to me, this encounter really cheapened what I thought was a fantastically solid character. This decision really bothered me, which is a good thing on one level because it shows how realistically the author has created his characters.
But the sexual theme seems to hit a high note in Stranger in Paradise. Especially the topic of cheating and how people didn’t have to feel guilty about it. That jarred. Usually Parker ties his explorations of the subject to the plot, but this time I don’t think that existing criteria was met.
Furthermore, when Crow makes the decision to save Amber and free her from her father rather than kidnap her and take her back home as he’s been hired to do, the book started resonating themes from earlier Parker books. In Early Autumn, Parker’s iconic private eye hero Spenser chooses to rescue a young boy from parents that only use him as a pawn in their on-going battle. In Ceremony, Spenser rescues young April Kyle from parents that don’t care about her by moving her from street hooker to high class call girl. The story with Amber smacks of both those books but doesn’t dig into the plot as deeply as either of those did.
Truthfully, Crow echoed Parker’s earlier creation of Spenser’s friend, Hawk. Both of those characters have the same animal magnetism, skewed senses of honor, and no remorse over killing people or doing what they want to do in spite of the law.
Stranger in Paradise is a fun romp. I sat down and read it straight through. I always save Parker books till a day on the weekend so I can read them without interruption. In that respect, the book was fantastic as always. I love the repartee and the familiar characters. But with all the build-up regarding Amber Francisco, I don’t know whether to expect her return in future novels in the Jesse Stone series, or never hear from her again. And I don’t honestly know which I’d prefer.
Parker is my favorite author, though, and I look forward to subsequent books in this series as well as others. He’s still delivering straight-forward tales of crime, detective, and tough guys. It’s a combination I just can’t stay away from.