Published on: September 12, 2014
First of all, let me get the heresy out of the way.
"Blind Spot," by Reed Farrel Coleman, may be the best Jesse Stone novel yet. And that includes the nine books in the series written by its creator, Robert B. Parker.
Regular MNB readers may be surprised by by assessment. After all, as I've written here in various contexts over the years, I'm an enormous fan of Parker's, had opportunity to meet him a couple of times over the years and interview him once, and became friends with his widow, Joan Parker, after he passed away.
My judgement of Coleman's "Blind Spot" does not diminish my respect for Parker's considerable accomplishments. But Coleman is an extraordinary writer and he brings his considerable talents to a series that was, to be honest, ill-served by the writer who took over the Jesse Stone series after Parker's death. Michael Brandman, who was involved with the successful TV movies about Stone featuring Tom Selleck, wrote three Stone novels, but while I respect anyone who even attempts to write a novel, his attempts were more well-intentioned than accomplished. (I've always suspected that because of his involvement with the movies, Brandman was a sentimental choice for the Parker estate. They did much better with their choice of the great Ace Atkins to continue the Spenser series … Atkins and Coleman are a one-two punch to be reckoned with, and I'm looking forward to following them for years to come.)
But I can tell you this. I was just one chapter into "Blind Spot" when I realized that the series is now in the hands of a great writer. I did not know Coleman's work until now, but this is actually his 20th book. (He is perhaps best known for the remarkable Moe Prager series, which I've been devouring since finishing "Blind Spot.")
I had the opportunity to sit down with Coleman for a few minutes this week to chat about what drew him to Jesse Stone, a former LAPD detective kicked off the force for excessive drinking, now seeking redemption and solace as a small town police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. Coleman told me that when he started, he knew he needed to find a door that would both admit him to the house that Parker built, and allow him to find some rooms that Parker hadn't had the time or inclination to explore. That door, as it ended up, was Stone's background as a professional baseball player who was close to making it to the major leagues as a shortstop when he got hurt; "Blind Spot" starts with a reunion of his former minor league teammates, which opens old wounds and even creates a few new ones.
"What I'm good at is understanding regret and the past," he said. "I can't say it any better than William Faulkner….'the past isn't dead, it isn't even past.' So that was the approach I took with Jesse - what was his big regret? I'm a baseball nut, I'm a huge Mets fan, I grew up with Lee Mazilli, so I know what it was like to be around somebody like that. I know what the difference is between being a good street player and being the guy. Just imagine what it's like to be one phone call away … I understood Jesse immediately."
Coleman is a fascinating guy. He held down numerous jobs while writing poetry in his spare time, and was working as freight forwarder at Kennedy Airport in New York when he decided to take a writing class. As it happened, the only class that fit his schedule was American Detective Fiction, and the three major works that he read were Dashiell Hammett's "The Continental Op" and "The Maltese Falcon," and Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely." He came away from that class in love with the genre, and convinced he could do it … mostly because when he read the words of Hammett and Chandler, he could hear the poetry in their language, something that distinguishes the best detective fiction.
"When I finished 'The Maltese Falcon,' I went to my wife and said I wanted to finish up the year at work and then quit and try to be a writer," Coleman said. "Now I'd never written prose, ever….I just knew I could do it … What I saw in Chandler and Hammett was that they were poets. Chandler actually was a failed poet. I just saw that he understood the same things that I understood about poetry. I thought, I can do this. Listen to the poetry of their writing. There are very distinct rhythms."
Years ago, as it happens, when I talked to Parker, he told me much the same thing. He was convinced that the reason people liked his novels was that they could hear the music in the language. One man's music is another man's poetry, but either way, you can hear it in the dialogue, the descriptions, the metaphors, even the odd combination of cynicism and idealism that characterizes so many many protagonists in the genre.
Coleman says that in his opinion, some of the best-selling writers out there are neither musical nor poetic. "There's no music in John Grisham's writing," he says. "It's perfectly good writing, but there's no music in it … I was listening to Beethoven on the way into the city and I was thinking that there's nothing I can teach a writing class that Beethoven's Ninth can't teach a writing class - the drama, the conflict, the crescendos, the build up, the delivery … that's the way I feel about poetry and writing."
I can tell you that in "Blind Spot," Coleman delivers. He observes the conventions of Parker's approach to writing - short chapters, snappy dialogue - without trying to imitate him. And Jesse's professional regrets, which Coleman described to me in our conversation, seem to have seeped into each and every page of the book - they infuse Jesse's every action, every statement, every drink. It is palpable, and that's remarkable.
Even if you've never read another Jesse Stone novel, I'd encourage you to read "Blind Spot." I'd then suggest you do what I'm doing, and work your way through the rest of the Reed Farrel Coleman oeuvre. And then, I suspect, you'll do what I'll almost certainly be doing - waiting with great expectation for the next one. He is a terrific writer.