This review is the second part of a two-part package. The first part featured an interview with Mr. Parker.
Robert B. Parker would be well justified in resting on his laurels as the celebrated dean of American crime fiction, taking a break after having written more than 50 novels, influencing countless crime writers and winning just about every crime fiction award in existence.
Not only has Parker not taken a break, though, but quite the opposite seems to be happening: While many writers put out maybe one book a year, three new books by him are being published this year alone and it is not even summer yet.
About ten 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, Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos (all of whom I've been lucky enough to interview). 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.
I still read all of his books, and liked to imagine myself as a pacifist version of Spenser, but I was just not getting the same enjoyment as with past books. But then Parker made two decisions that returned him to my list of favorite, interesting crime writers.
The first decision, to start new series with different protagonists, was not too unusual. Some of my other favorite writers, including Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake, have successfully navigated the challenge of writing multiple series. Parker has said he started writing a series focused on Chief Jesse Stone 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.
Parker later started another series featuring private investigator Sunny Randall, the daughter of a police officer, with relatives in organized crime. The series was started at the request of actress Helen Hunt, he said in the interview
The second decision was to have characters cross over from one series into another. This, too, is not unheard of. A Robert Crais character appeared in a Michael Connelly novel and vice versa. But it made reading Parker’s books more interesting when you never knew who would show up next. At first I thought I was delusional in thinking that characters from Spenser’s series were appearing in Sunny Randall’s series. After doing more checking and reading I determined I was not crazy, or at least not on that topic.
I wrote about this in my review of Blue Screen, noting that I was struggling with whether this was too much of a contrivance or an interesting development. Gradually, I decided I liked having this expanded cast of characters as it resulted in less predictable stories. Indeed, it allowed Parker to deal with different subjects.
With Blue Screen and his new book, High Profile, Parker takes this idea of crossover characters to the extreme with Jesse and Sunny contemplating a future together. At times I would have to check to see if it was listed as a Jesse Stone book or a Sunny Randall book. For the record, Blue Screen was listed as a Sunny Randall book while High Profile is listed as a Jesse Stone novel.
Parker has never been one for simple relationships and that continues to be the case here. With Jesse and his ex-wife, Jenn, Parker has developed one of the most interesting relationships I’ve read in crime series in several years, precisely because it is not simple nor clichéd. Both still have strong feelings for each other though they have slept with other partners.
As High Profile starts, Jenn shows up, saying she has been raped and is being stalked. But Jesse has his hands full dealing with the murder of a popular libertarian commentator and the host’s girlfriend. Jesse asks Sunny to stay with Jenn while they sort out what has happened to Jenn. Jesse’s solving of the murders is less interesting than the interplay between Jesse, Jenn and Sunny as he deals with the complicated and overlapping feelings he has for both women.
The book is one of Parker’s best in years. And, no, I’m not going to reveal what happens between Jesse, Jenn and Sunny.
Of his three series, the character of Sunny has been the least interesting and the least developed. Spare Change, which comes out June 5, changes all that as it focuses almost exclusively on Sunny, with only brief mentions of characters from the other series. The title comes from a serial killer known for leaving change behind. Sunny’s father asks her to help him and a task force solve the crimes and stop the killer.
Sunny figures out who she thinks the serial killer is and starts to meet with him. While others around her, not to mention the reader, are telling her to be careful, she plows ahead in a startling series of developments. The book is one of his more intense novels in recent years, moving at a faster pace, more in line with the speed of books by Crais and Connelly.
As if all of that is not enough on Parker’s plentiful plate he has started a new series. But in comparison to Spare Change and High Profile, Edenville Owls is kid's play. Literally. The book marks Parker's foray into the Young Adult market. For those used to Parker talking about sex, relationships, and murders this may feel at times like going to a G-rated film based on one of his books. Put simply, it is much more tame.
For what it is, however, it's not bad. With Edenville Owls Parker has brought some of his quality writing skills to a different audience. With a main character who sounds a lot like a young Spenser, the book is about a boy who is either best friends or in love with — he's not quite sure which, although the reader can guess — a girl named Joanie. Is this Parker's idea of a shout-out to his wife, Joan Parker, or just a coincidence? And what about the fact the boy's name is Bobby, which can be a shortened version of Robert, as in Robert Parker?
Either way, Bobby is helping his school's basketball team, the Edenville Owls, play some of its best basketball in years but he is distracted when he sees a strange man hit a teacher he has a crush on. Despite her asking him to pretend he never saw it, Bobby, with the help of Joanie, investigates and realizes that the man is a racist idiot who is always blathering on about this or that.
I don't want to say much more about the novel because it would be giving it away. Overall, if you are a long-time Parker fan, or looking for a book to get a young reader hooked on him, I'd check this one. If you are new to Parker I'd go with High Profile or Spare Change instead.
I, for one, am glad to see Parker trying some new things and doing some of his most interesting writing in several years. But with this review completed I'm taking a break from Parker's books and am diving in next to read two books from another great crime writer, James Lee Burke. Burke has a new novel, Tin Roof Blowdown, coming out July 17 and a book collection of short stories, Jesus Out to Sea, coming out June 5. An email interview with him is in the works.
This is your intrepid reader and writer signing off.