Published on: September 13, 2019
Robert B. Parker’s Massachusetts police chief, Jesse Stone, returned this week in a new novel, “The Bitterest Pill,” written by Reed Farrel Coleman, for whom this is the seventh in the series that Parker launched with “Night Passage” back in 1997. Coleman is one of the greats of the genre - he has written several series of highly regarded crime fiction, with his Moe Prager novels possibly the best known. His specialty, I think it is fair to say, is the tormented male protagonist … and so Jesse Stone is right in his writing wheelhouse.
I’ve always thought that the Jesse Stone series is the one with which someone like Coleman could take the most liberties, in part because unlike Parker’s Spenser and Sunny Randall novels, which are written in a first-person narrative, the Stone books are third person. Getting the voice right is, I think, a little less important than staying true to the themes and characters that Parker set in motion almost a quarter-century ago.
(Ace Atkins has expertly executed the trick of maintaining Spenser’s voice while still giving it new energy, in his seven novels in the series, with an eighth, “Angel Eyes,” due on November 19. Mike Lupica’s single Sunny Randall novel, “Blood Feud,” seemed more imitative than I would’ve liked, but he’s a good writer and so the books are likely to get better with experience.)
In addition, stories about Jesse Stone already have taken place in parallel universes - the books by Parker and the popular TV movies that starred Tom Selleck were similar at the beginning and then diverged, moving in different directions. For the most part, the books have stayed true to the notion that Stone is a functioning alcoholic and former big-city cop serving as police chief of small-town Paradise, Massachusetts; the books always sort of positioned Stone as a kind of western sheriff bringing law and order to an sometimes lawless community. The Selleck movies at a certain point seemed to get bored with the small town stuff, and started having Stone working freelance for the Boston Police department solving cold cases; it worked fine, Selleck was terrific, but they were different.
Coleman’s Jesse Stone books strike me as different, too.
What Coleman has done is interesting, especially in view of the often anguished heroes he’s written about in other series. He started his entries in the series by really sending Stone into a tailspin, with a lot of time focusing on his drinking, especially after suffering some personal tragedies that tested him. But in his last Stone book, “Colorblind,” and now with “The Bitterest Pill,” he seems more interested in writing a redemption story for Stone. There is less of the tsuris
that we’d gotten used to, and that Coleman seemed to love writing. Now, there seems to be more hope for Stone, and it is refreshing.
That’s not to say that all is well in Paradise. Far from it. Coleman writes of a place that has evolved from its small town roots as more and more people have moved there from Boston. As Boston came to Paradise, Coleman writes, so, too have “come its sins.”
In this case, it is the drug crisis, as a teen’s overdose death sets in motion an investigation that brings Stone into battle against organized crime, a school system that often seems more interested in protecting its flank than its students, and parents who are so focused on their own upward mobility that they ignore the often deadly directions taken by their children.
There is hypocrisy to spare in Paradise, which works for “The Bitterest Pill” because that was always Robert B. Parker’s favorite targets. Coleman comes at it a little differently than Parker would have, I think; where Parker would’ve used dialogue to cut through it, Coleman is more of a poet with language. But I’m okay with that. I have a big personal investment in these stories and characters - I started reading Parker back in the seventies, and have always been an unabashed fan - and there’s no question in my mind that Jesse Stone is in good hands.
I finally caught up with Can You Ever Forgive Me?
, last year’s critically respected film that, for some reason, never caught on with audiences. That’s a shame, because it is terrific.
Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, an writer whose career hit the skids because of her obsessive personality and heavy drinking. (This is based on a true story.) At a certain point in her decline, months behind in her rent and unable to hold down a job, she discovers a previously unknown talent for forging letters by famous writers - Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward) and then selling them to unsuspecting bookstore owners, who then turn around and sell them to unsuspecting clients. She is aided in this by Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant - delightful), a homeless fellow alcoholic with enormous charm and no visible scruples.
McCarthy is a revelation in this serious role, written with great compassion by Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener, and directed by Marielle Heller. While the movie has a light touch, it is an observant look at people living at the edge of society, and how society may actually put greater value on some items than they deserve. And, maybe, put less
value on some things than they deserve.
Good stuff. Go find the movie and watch it.
I have a couple of terrific wines to recommend to you this week … both rosés, and wonderful as summer comes to its inevitable end. (They’re so good that I plan to include them in the rotation well into the fall.) I would under all circumstances open a bottle of the 2013 Berne Romance or the 2018 Whispering Angel.
That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend.