A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The blues will get you...

Michael Brandman's Killing the Blues, the first Jesse Stone adventure not written by the late Robert B. Parker, is an enjoyable police thriller only slightly roughed up by a few questionable choices.

The main plotlines are just fine. In the central storyline, Jesse is stalked by a deranged criminal seeking revenge for the excessive police brutality inflicted on him back when Jesse was an out-of-control alcoholic in Los Angeles. I liked this plotline, as it took the history firmly established by Robert Parker- that Jesse was a mess back in the old days, prior to his arrival in Paradise, Massachusetts- and extrapolated a new consequence for Jesse to confront as a result of that time.

Another plotline has Jesse helping out a troubled student who threatened her school principal with a gun. Looking past the episode and trying to discover the reasons behind it, Jesse soon uncovers a messy situation involving many students and the dark secret making them act out in inappropriate, damaging ways. This was more of a direct imitation of the kind of plotline Robert Parker did many times before (his characters helping troubled youth was always a favored Parker theme), but it was handled well, with Jesse behaving just as readers want him to in such a situation.

The final main plotline features Jesse playing hardball with a crime boss who is setting up a car theft ring in Paradise. When a civilian is killed during the course of one of the car thefts, Jesse puts the law aside and does what needs to be done to shut down both the operation and the crime boss, with unambiguous finality.

Some will probably describe this last plotline as going too far, in that it paints Jesse as a vigilante just as brutal as the criminal he is chasing. But it always seemed to me that, in every five or six entries of all his series, Robert Parker demonstrated that his characters were willing to administer their own justice when- in their view- the law just wouldn't suffice. Heck, I'm still reeling from the scene in A Catskill Eagle (about 20 Spenser adventures ago!) when Spenser and Hawk execute (yes, as in “kill”) a couple of unarmed, defenseless pimps because of Spenser and Hawk’s (probably correct) prediction that the pimps would have ultimately murdered the prostitutes in their employ for helping our heroes with their case. So, tough and gritty as it is, I had no problem with this particular storyline in the new Jesse Stone book. Guiltily enjoyed it, in fact.

My problems with Killing the Blues? There aren’t many, but they're worth noting. And they're all tied into the unfortunate decision to make the Jesse Stone books now fall more into line with the occasional Jesse Stone television movies starring Tom Selleck.

Least harmful among the changes instituted here was having Jesse move into a cottage at the end of a footbridge, just like the one in the TV movies. Though annoying, this wasn’t a terrible move, though it minimized the important function Jesse’s comically under furnished condo (a framed action photograph of Jesse’s favorite baseball player was the only adornment) performed in the previous books: reminding us that Jesse’s job with the cops and his discomfort with the kind of cozy aloneness most other people often enjoy are both central motivators in his life.

The other changes are more problematic, as they all but negate the carefully-built continuity of the previous books. Two quick examples: Molly Crane, cop and administrative aide to Jesse, is now deliberately described and characterized in a bland way so readers can picture either the Molly of the previous books (an Irish Catholic with many children, who does her best to handle a libido-fueled independent streak) or the Molly of the TV movies (a likable but generally underused African American character who’s mainly there to annoy Jesse with her quips). I miss the distinctive Molly of the previous books.

Also brought in is the watered-down, TV-movie version of Hasty Hathaway, the town selectman who served as the villain- and a quite dark, dangerous one- in the first Jesse Stone novel, Night Passage. It would have been interesting to have that Hasty Hathaway return in Killing the Blues, but instead we get the one from TV, a Hasty Hathaway whose crimes weren’t all that serious and, after serving a little time in prison, now runs a used car dealership in Paradise.

I guess we’re supposed to edit our earlier memories of the Hasty Hathaway in the novels because it simply doesn’t make sense for the murderous, sociopathic Hasty Hathaway of the novel Night Passage to now be back in Paradise, haggling over the price of his used cars with Jesse. I guess we have to shrug and assume that both Jesse and the courts are more forgiving than we thought.

To conclude on an even-handed note, I do think that Michael Brandman did an overall nice job with the thankless task of continuing a well-liked print series established by a beloved author. I just hope he eases back on the “aligning the books and movies” thing, and lets the literary Jesse and the movie Jesse be their own distinct entities.

So, yes, I’ll hang around to see what Mr. Brandman does next with this character and series I’ve always enjoyed. Even though, ahem, the author makes one other alteration in the series that I’m pretty sure the dog-loving Robert Parker would grumble about: He gives Jesse a cat.

But I won’t complain, because the cat is very cute. Who says this longtime Parker fan isn’t flexible?

Killing the Blues is available on Kindle for $12.99.


  1. I agree with most of this, but when it comes right down to it, it's not a Robert Parker book. In Parker's Spenser and Stone books, no matter what his characters did, you enjoyed them and enjoyed spending time with them. In this book, I didn't find Jesse as charming and fun as he was in Parker's books. Yes, the plots and resolutions were pretty much as Parker would have them, but I just didn't like this Jesse as much. It just goes to show that no matter how easy Parker made it look (and boy does he make it look easy), creating his distinctive voice and characters was the work of a true artist and craftsman. Brandman has all the right elements, but he's just not the writer that Parker was.

  2. Thanks for checking in, Bill. My review was already running long, or else I would have made one or two more observations about the book, some positive and some negative. One of the things I didn't like was the way Jesse handled the whole concert thing. Did he really need to be such a hardass with his new girlfriend, just because she wanted the concert she was organizing to run beyond the "official" curfew time for public events in Paradise? In those scenes, Jesse acted like the kind of self-important blowhard he usually ridicules. So, yeah, Jesse definitely wasn't his usual breezy, likable self in "Killing the Blues". With luck that will change next time.