The late Robert B. Parker once said that readers liked his books “for the same reason that they like certain songs.”
They may say that they like the characters and the plots, he said, but “I think what appeals to readers — and I don’t think they know it — is the way the language works. It’s an aesthetic experience for them.”
Parker died at his writing desk in January 2010, but his most popular characters — Spenser, a Boston private eye, and Jesse Stone, the police chief of mythical Paradise, Mass. — live on.
Ace Atkins, one of the best crime novelists around, has signed on to continue the Spenser series. Michael Brandman, the Hollywood producer and screenwriter who worked on the made-for-TV Jesse Stone movies starring Tom Selleck, has taken on the task of continuing the Stone novels.
Brandman’s “Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues” shows just how difficult it is to follow in the master’s footsteps. Brandman fashioned a solid plot about a murderous car-theft ring that sets up shop in Paradise. And he spiced his yarn with two compelling subplots: In one, Jesse cracks down on bullying at the local high school. In the other, he is stalked by a psychopath from his past.
But the prose, which was always the greatest appeal of Parker’s work, doesn’t measure up.
Brandman tries to mimic the ironic patter between Stone and other familiar characters including Stone’s subordinate, Suitcase Simpson, and the state police homicide commander, Captain Healey. Sometimes it works, but too often the dialogue falls flat.
He also tries to imitate Parker’s breezy style, characterized by crisp, short sentences that jitterbugged across the page in a cadence you could dance to. Sometimes he pulls it off, but often Brandman’s short sentences plod along with the monotony of a metronome.
Occasionally the author loses the style altogether, producing sentences that might have made Parker shudder. When Brandman explains why Stone is moving to an isolated cottage on the water, for example, he writes: “But as the years went by and his position in Paradise became more secure, he began to yearn for something more suited to his personality and his desire for privacy.” Parker would have just told us that Stone wanted to be left alone.
It’s hard to blame Brandman for this. Copying a master is never easy. Parker, one of the greatest crime-fiction stylists of the last 40 years, provided his own proof. When he attempted to mimic the great Raymond Chandler, completing the latter’s unfinished novel, “Poodle Springs” (1989), and then writing “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1991), he was only partially successful.
Like Chandler, Parker was too much of an original to ever be replaced.
Still, fans of the Jesse Stone novels may be willing to overlook Brandman’s lapses for the chance to follow the continuing adventures of the tough but vulnerable Paradise police chief.
Bruce DeSilva is the author of “Rogue Island,” which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award and the Mystery Readers International’s Macavity Award for best first novel.