Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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Dream Girl by Robert B. Parker









Blue Screen by Robert B. Parker









Double Play by Robert B. Parker









High Profile by Robert B. Parker









Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker


It sometimes amazes me how often I seem to be writing about Robert Parker.  It is a dirty secret I feel compelled to confess, but whenever a new Parker novel arrives, I tend to drop whatever Iím doing, and read it through immediately.  It generally doesnít take long; his books are like that, but facility should not be mistaken for shallowness, and the fact that IĎm generally forced to stick with it through to the end is, in itself, a good argument for ParkerĎs talents as a writer.  Iím not sure, given his prolificacy and the relative thinness of his books, that  Parker ever receives his due for his ability to sketch in believable characters with just a few strokes of dialogue, or for his way of keeping a plot going through a series of set-piece scenes, driven by that dialogue.  Sure itís formulaic, and sure it can be irritating to be lectured about relationships, responsibility, restaurants, or the joys of psychoanalysis by a private detective, but I suppose thatís the price we pay.


Inevitably, the Spenser series has become self-referential.  This should not come as a surprise; although Parker, Hawk, Susan and the rest age in dog years, the world moves on at its own relentless pace.  Spencerís dog, by the way, ages in human years, and Pearl, with all her Hawthornian overtones, has been replaced by Pearl II, which just begs for a male dog, or maybe a cat, named Knit One.   Not content with self-reference, Parker has also created a female Spenser, Sunny Randall, and a proto-Spenser, Jesse Stone.  That Sunny is indeed a female Spenser is conveyed by her pet dog, as relentlessly male as Spenserís is female, and also by the fact that Spenser actually gives her an entire novel to do for a young woman what Spenser did many years ago for one Paul Giacomin, a recurring character who serves as an occasional son-figure.  But where Spenser is never torn romantically, loyal to the last analysis to his psychologist girlfriend Susan, Sunny is torn by her friendship to her ex-husband, whose family just happen to be the mafia bosses of Boston.  Dennis Lehaneís characters faced a similar problem in his Kinsey and Malone books: whatever would happen when the two families met in a turf war is an open, collaborative question.


If Sunny is torn by her relationship with her ex, Jesse Stone is positively rent asunder by ex-wife Jenn, who doesnít consider fidelity a virtue if it stands in the way of media self-advancement, and doesnĎt consider divorce an impediment to following your ex across the country.  Stone represents Spenser without Susan there to reflect, indeed, enhance, his anima: his sensitive, more female half. Itís not coincidence Stone spends much of his time recommending that various criminals, delinquents, and victims consult psychologists: Parker appears to hold the process, if not the profession, in high reverence.  In fact, you could argue that the Spenser novels are a mapping of Susanís psychological training versus Spenserís Ďnaturalí instincts: a tougher Hemingway meets a better looking Dr Joyce Brothers.


The limits of psychobabble, or perhaps the limits of Spenserís tough--guy world-view, are the subject of Dream Girl, which brings back an old client, April Kyle.  When she first came to Spenser she was a runaway, headed downhill fast.  Spenser steered her, if that is the right word, to a high-class madame, so that Aprilís slide would be uphill in some senses.  Now sheís back in Boston, with her own establishment, only someoneís putting the pressure on to close her down, and she comes to Spenser once again for help.


Or so it seems.  Although Spenser and Hawk get to flex their muscles against a variety of Beantown badguys, his psuedo-parenting skills wind up being questioned severely.  Since Aprilís world-view has been formed primarily on her back, she may be forgiven for not appreciating the break Spenser gave her on any but the most commercial terms.  He is softening in his old age, allowing more and more female villains to skate away from their crime, as if heís a one-man sexual peace and reconciliation commission.  As good as that works usually, and perhaps itís his payback for failing to raise April up proper, you could see April as positively Ozzie and Harriet compared to Jesse Stoneís ex-wife Jenn, with whom heís still wound up tighter than a yoyo string in a puppeteerís pocket.


Which is why it seemed so natural when Stone and Sunny hooked up in Blue Screen (billed as Ďa Sunny Randall novelí).  You could look at their potential merger as creating a symbolic transsexual Spenser, a sensitive but tough guy/gal who understands psychobabble, cooks, and keeps dogs. 


Blue Screen starts with a soft-core film producer Buddy hiring Sunny to protect his top star (and girlfriend) Erin, whom heís going to use as the focal point in the launch of a major league baseball team in Connecticut, of all places.  My home state has never supported major league anything, except perhaps arms manufacturing, so right away we know weíre in the realms of fantasy.  Then Erinís personal assistant gets her neck broken, and the plot begins to flip from coast to coast, during which time Sunny and Stoney get to escape their respective millstones and get all hot in LA.  Between Stoneís old boss and Sunnyís mafia in-laws, Parker pulls out all the stops, Sunny learns from Stone, Stone learns from Sunny, and Stone, a former minor league baseball player, discovers Erin canít hit high heat.  Itís sounds crazy but itís actually a lot of fun.


Parkerís written a baseball novel too: Double Play, in which a 1940s version of Parker is hired to protect Jackie Robinson while he integrates major league baseball: thereís a kid named Bobby, whoís 15 and comes from Boston, who goes to a Dodger game in that one, and thereís a lot in the relationship of Robinson and his wife Rachel which is echoed in Spenser and Susan.  I recommend it, if youíd like an off-beat variation on these themes.


Stone and Randall made their second appearance less fun, barely getting established as the North ShoreĎs Nick and Nora in High Profile, this one billed as Ďa Jesse Stone novelí, before itĎs all change.  Stoneís relationship with Sunny not only elicited thumbs up from his shrink, but also from his mother-figure/unofficial shrink, Officer Molly Crane, who performs the non-romantic part of the Susan Silverman functions for Jesse.   But when the bodies of talk-show host Walton Weeks and his young lover turn up in Paradise, and Stoneís newsbimbo ex-wife Jenn turns up as well, seeking both a scoop and protection after being raped, clouds begin to cross the Sunny daze.  Given how quickly, efficiently and completely they bonded last time around, itís a little off that they now dance the tango of non-commitment.  Of course itĎs not THAT surprising, since they are, in essence, the same character, both unexplored parts of Spenser spun off into their own series, like Joey set free from ďFriendsĒ.  Each has a lamprey-like attachment to their ex, a way of justifying endless introspection (and authorial digression) to action.


This might all work, but suddenly Parker has given Stone the same kind of Stacy Keatch/Mike Hammer allure, irresistible to all females, that Spenser, who now must be in his 70s, still packs.  The more divided Stone gets over his Sunny-Jenn dilemma, the more he seems to appeal to women in general, and he canĎt resist turning the seducto-charm on to an older woman who shows up as a witness.  There are some benefits to triangulation, after all.  Talking about having your cake and having it too!  There may be some deep psychological symbolism in the fact that Weeks turned out to have been an habitual womaniser with severe problems in the ultimate delivery end of the deal, but blessedly since Weeks is dead Jesse canít refer him to psychiatric help.


Oh yes, the murders. Jesse solves them with old fashioned police work, while Sunny actually takes care of Jennís sexual assault problem. Iíd like to analyse the ending for you, but without spoiling things suffice it to say that if Jesse has any more mental problems he has no one to blame but himself, so he can 86 the shrink and save himself some time and money.  Sunny might well get benefit from doing the same.  Parker has proselytised for psychiatry for some time now, while his characters persist in letting female villains skate.  Iím starting to worry about him.  Maybe he needs to see a shrink!


Luckily, the characters in Appaloosa canít be referred to shrinks, since this is the American West some time in the 1880s.  Parkerís westerns are interesting.  He basically has rewritten a few of the basics of the genre, originally turning the characters into his own (Wyatt Earp as proto-Spenser) or as recognisable variations who allow him to explore the usual themes of Ďa manís gotta do what a manís gotta do and understand himself while heís doing ití.  Here the variations are on the classic town-tamer story (it reminded me a little of DB Newtonís Legend In The Dust) with the twist being the way the Wyatt character, Virgil (geddit?) Cole is taken under the yoke of the woman, while his sidekick tries to protect him as best he can. 


Parkerís prose is perfectly suited for the western, something heís realised as he re-enacted ďThe Magnificent SevenĒ or ďHigh NoonĒ as Spenser novels.  What makes this one more interesting is that the novel is narrated by Everett Hitch, the sidekick.  First-person narration by an onlooker is not usual with Parker, and the change of perspective provides an interesting, almost modern, take on the inter-personal relationships.  In the end, Hitch steps to the fore, forced to act out of the code of a lawman in order to live up to the code of friendship, or perhaps more.  Seems itís the Appaloosa stallion whoís got the mares, or maybe itís the mares got him.  Forty-some-odd novels into Parker, youíd think Iíd know by now.


Dream Girl    No Exit £11.99 ISBN 1842431862

Blue Screen   No Exit £6.99 ISBN 97818421924

Double Play  No Exit £16.99 ISBN 1842431390

High Profile  No Exit £18.99 ISBN 1842431889

Appaloosa     Berkeley (US) $7.99 ISBN 0425204324



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