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Learning from the Mistakes of Others – 3

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Another Irritated Review™, but this time I'll identify the author and work since the author is no longer alive: Robert B. Parker, the Jesse Stone books. Or, as I've come to call it, the Frozen Series.

One of the great benefits of the resurrection of the backlist into permanent life in the last few years is the ability to buy an entire series and read it, in one big gulp, as if you were binging on a Netflix series season. Unfortunately, when an author adds one book per year to a lengthy series, you see many things over the course of the few days it takes to read them that the author did not, and not every author bears this sort of scrutiny. I was worried when I reread the Travis McGee books, in the John D. MacDonald series, but those held up well. Robert Parker's Jesse Stone on the other hand…

Parker's main books were the Spenser series and I enjoyed them for many years, until they began to seem mannered, repetitive, and tedious. I had never tried the Jesse Stone series, his “B” hero, until the movie specials of eight of them were broadcast by CBS, with Tom Selleck in the lead role. The movies, which I thought were well done, got me interested in the books, and I have just finished a two-week read of all of them.

  1. Night Passage (1997) – Berkley (Penguin)
  2. Trouble in Paradise (1998) – Berkley (Penguin)
  3. Death in Paradise (2001) – Berkley (Penguin)
  4. Stone Cold (2003) – Berkley (Penguin)
  5. Sea Change (2005) – G P Putnam Penguin
  6. High Profile (2007) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  7. Stranger in Paradise (2008) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  8. Night and Day (2009) – G P Putnam (Penguin)
  9. Split Image (2010) – G P Putnam (Penguin)

Parker completed nine books in the series before his death in 2010, and they are still being continued by other authors.  (I'll just cover Parker's books in this review, not the continuations.) They represent his latest work.

Where was the editor?


The Jesse Stone books were apparently Parker's first foray into 3rd person point-of-view, and there are many technical errors related to dialogue and POV that any editor should have caught, especially these mainstream publishers.

In particular, there's occasional head-hopping from paragraph to paragraph and, disconcertingly, dialogue from multiple speakers in the same paragraph.  These are elementary, easily corrected mishaps, but they made it all the way to print.

I also take exception to the concept of one scene per chapter, when the scenes are typically 3 pages long.  A Jesse Stone book with 200 pages will have 60-70 chapters.

The world of Jesse Stone

Not even these guys all talk the same
Not even these guys all talk the same

There's no question that Parker can write, and write well.  Part of the charm of this series (and of the Spenser books, too) is the clever dialogue. Jesse Stone is laconic, witty, and absolutely unmistakable when you hear him. The problem is, so is everyone else he talks to, as though they were just projections of his personality.

At least half the characters around him speak exactly the same way he does. While a certain amount of that might be influence from our hero, we're way beyond that effect: half the people in his department (he's chief of police in a small town), his colleagues, his shrink, several of his girlfriends, and even a few of the villains all indulge in volleys of two or three word phrases with him.  It's all witty enough that the reader is amused, until he stops to think about it.

We live in Jesse Stone's world while we read the series, and adapt to the artifice of the dialogue tic. It's a mannerism peculiar to Parker — the Spenser books are exactly the same, with the banter between Spenser and Hawk or Spenser and Sue Silverman.  It reminds me of the stage dialogue of a couple of centuries ago for comic sidekicks.

Frozen in time

No one's life changes for 13 years
No one's life changes for 13 years

The real issue, the one that makes me write this review, is how Parker handles one of the classic writing problems: how do you account for the passing of time in a series?

The characters can grow and develop. Tragedy and triumph can enter their lives.  They can change their relationships with each other.  But on the other hand, it's always a temptation with an established series hero to leave him unchanged so as not to mess with whatever is working right in the ensemble.

Other authors grow their characters well over time, but forget to allow for enough books in the series, and so we have aging detectives in implausible action adventures by book 20.

How does Parker deal with this?  In the case of the Jesse Stone books, the answer is: not very well. Here are some clues from the books.

  • Book 1: Jesse Stone is about 34. He worked for 10 years in LA Homicide, after he washed out of baseball's Minor Leagues circa 19. He is recently divorced from his wife, Jenn. He has taken a job as Chief of Police in Paradise, MA. One of his cops, “Suitcase” Simpson, is 22. One of his cops, Molly Crane, has 4 kids.
  • Book 2: Shortly after book 1. Major villain is introduced (see Book 7).
  • Book 3: Four years after book 1. Jesse has been divorced for four years. He's been Chief of Police for four years.
  • Book 4. Jesse has been a cop for fifteen or sixteen years (LA & Paradise).  Suitcase Simpson is “a kid”.
  • Book 5. Jesse hasn't had a drink for a year (since the last book). He's been Chief of Police for seven years.
  • Book 6. The events of book 2 are several years ago. Jesse has resumed drinking.
  • Book 7: Villain from Book 2 returns.  The 10-year statute of limitations for events in book 2 has passed.  Molly has been married 15 years (or 14). It's been a year since book 6.
  • Book 8: Suitcase Simpson is young, but not as young as he looks. Molly has been married 17 years. Ex-wife Jenn leaves for NYC. A girlfriend puts her dog to sleep.
  • Book 9: The dog was put to sleep over a year ago.

So, let's look at this.  When we begin, Jesse Stone is 34 years old and hung up on his ex-wife Jenn. She's a would-be actress (age unspecified) sleeping her way up the career ladder. Sidekick Suitcase Simpson is 22. Sidekick Molly Crane has been married 4 years (book 7 minus 10-11 years) and apparently popped out 4 kids in record time, since she already has them in book 1, with no mention of infants or toddlers.

By book 5, Jesse Stone would be 41 and Suitcase Simpson would be 29. By book 8, Jesse Stone would be 46, and Suitcase Simpson would be 34, the same age Jesse was when he arrived.

Time may pass, but not in the characters' lives
Time may pass, but not in the characters' lives

Not once, in the entire series, does anyone dwell on getting older.  All of Jesse Stone's lovely girlfriends (and the ex-wife) seem to be just as lovely as ever.  The mismatch for Molly Crane's total marriage years vs how quickly she would have had to have those kids is unlikely, but not absolutely impossible.  And that's the problem for all of the continuing characters — the ages are possible (no flagrant contradictions), but no one behaves any differently over the course of at least 13 years.

Jesse Stone's relationship with his ex-wife never changes. His relationship with his shrink doesn't change. Suitcase Simpson is still a “young kid with promise” cracking the same jokes, and Molly Crane still has those four kids, who would be almost starting to college by book 9. No one's had any change or advancement in career or responsibilities in over a decade, and no one thinks that's a problem. The only one whose career moves is the ex-wife.

Puppet going through the motions of life
Puppet going through the motions of life

For thirteen years (far longer than he was actually married), Jesse Stone obsesses over his ex-wife in exactly the same way. Not until book 9 does he achieve any closure with that.  Considering that he's 46 by then (and she must be at least 40), that's going to put them out there a little late for their next life partner.

And the hell of it is, it was unnecessary.  Except for the statute of limitations plot use of the 10 years between book 2 and book 7, there's no reason each book couldn't have taken place 6 months after the last one, leaving our hero well under 40 by book 9.

It's not how many years have passed — it's how little mark they've left on everyone. The more untouched they seem, the less they resemble real people.

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