Author Robert Parker is breaking convention and I, for one, like it. This is particularly evident in his latest book, Blue Screen.
I have long been a fan of Parker, having read 20 of his books with protagonist private investigator Spenser in one summer. I later finished reading the other books starring Spenser (who never reveals his first name). The books about Spenser, a former police officer, are easy, light, fun reading.
About five years ago, Parker slipped off my list of favorite mystery authors as I was more impressed by the stories of relative newcomers like Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos. Where their characters and plots were fresh and hip, Parker's were starting to seem tired, with increasingly predictable results. This was bound to happen since he has been writing books about Spenser since 1974.
It was about that time when Parker started a new series with Jesse Stone, police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts, as his protagonist. In an interview in the excellent Robert B. Parker Companion, Parker explained his motivations. Parker said he started writing the series so he could experiment with writing in third person, as well as developing a character more flawed than Spenser. Stone is a recovering alcoholic, fired from the Los Angeles Police Department, with a marriage that is falling apart.
Then, at the request of actress Helen Hunt, Parker began a series of novels with a female private investigator as the protagonist. While the idea of creating a series of books for the purpose of creating a vehicle for Hunt rubbed me wrong, the books were not bad. I have since warmed to those featuring the investigator, Sunny Randall.
Unlike Stone and Spenser, Randall does not have a police background. Instead, she has relatives in law enforcement and organized crime and tries to use knowledge and contacts from both to solve her cases.
But with his last few books for each of these three series Parker has done something intriguing: Characters are starting to float from one series to another. This has breathed new life into Parker’s books.
I first noticed it while reading one Parker book at the same time I was listening to another on audiotape. I would "read" one while driving and the other when not moving. That is when I noticed a character, a therapist with the unfortunate name of Dix, appearing in not only Sunny Randall books – Stone Cold and Death in Paradise – but also in a Spenser book. The crossover happened again in Melancholy Baby when Susan Silverman, who is Spenser's long-time girlfriend, appeared as Randall's therapist. To make it even more interesting, Dix is recommended to Spenser by Silverman since she can’t be in town.
I could not decide at first whether this process of characters moving from series to series was a gimmick, a trick or an annoying distraction and, most importantly, whether it worked. I thought about commenting on it at the time but decided I would wait to see what Parker came up with next. What arrived was Blue Screen, about Erin Flint, a ditzy dame whose sister gets killed. While her boyfriend, Buddy, a movie mogul, had hired Sunny Randall to protect Flint, Flint then hires Sunny to investigate the death of his sister.
That's where things get interesting because, while Sunny is working as a private investigator on the case, the official case is being done by Chief Jesse Stone. While the two are unearthing Flint's unseemly background, they are also learning more about each other. So now not only are two series' protagonists in the same book but they are having a relationship. And who is Sunny's therapist, to help her work through her feelings for Jesse but Silverman?
I had to stop to see if this was listed as a Jesse Stone book or a Sunny Randall, since both characters play major roles in this story. For the record, it is a Sunny Randall book.
I won't reveal what happens, either as far as the relationship between Sunny and Jesse or how they crack the case. I will say that I am looking forward to his next book, not only to see what happens next with their relationship but to see which characters will appear in the next book.
I'm secretly hoping Spenser and Jesse will have a duel to the death just to see which character survives. But it's doubtful that will happen, which is probably good because a legion of fans would be distraught.
The actual mystery in this story, involving who killed Flint’s sister, why, and what it means, seems almost an afterthought. It makes sense that Parker has said in interviews that he is more interested in characters than plot.
I would not recommend Blue Screen for anyone who has not read any prior Parker books. But if you have read some of the books with Spenser, Jesse and Sunny as protagonists, I think you will enjoy reading about how Parker has them interacting.
Meanwhile, The Robert B. Parker Companion book is a good resource for those trying to keep straight which book is which, which characters appeared in which books. It also features a too-short interview with Parker.