Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Robert B. Parker was one of the most influential of modern-day crime fiction authors. His Spenser, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series won him (still do) millions of fans and this series can only be enhanced by a look at his work. So today, let’s take a closer look at the first of Parker’s Jesse Stone series, Night Passage.
Night Passage begins with a major change in Jesse Stone’s life. He’s an L.A.P.D. Homicide cop who’s succeeded in drinking himself out of a job. Part of the reason for that is the breakup of his marriage, and his divorce is another impetus to make a complete break with the life he’s known. Stone gets an interview for the position of Chief of Police in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Even though he’s drunk at the interview, Stone is surprisingly offered the job and he accepts it. He moves across the country hoping for a chance to put his life back together.
What Stone expects to be an easy job soon turns out to be anything but a “cake walk.” For one thing, he soon earns the enmity of local thug JoJo Genest when Genest’s wife Carole calls the police with a complaint that Genest violated a restraining order. When Stone puts Genest in his place, so to speak, in front of Carole, Genest considers this a personal affront. So he’s only too happy to make Stone’s life as miserable as possible and it’s not long before he starts to do just that.
As if that weren’t enough, Stone soon learns that the Paradise town council, led by selectman Hastings “Hasty” Hathaway, didn’t exactly hire him to provide quality police service. They wanted to hire someone who would be easy to manipulate. Stone knows that the town leaders were aware of his drinking problem when they hired him, but it’s not until he gets settled in that he begins to learn why he was chosen. What Hathaway and the other leaders of the town learn that Stone is no patsy, things begin to get more uncomfortable for Stone. He slowly begins to dig into the truth about some things going on in town and as he gets closer to what’s really going on, he also finds things getting more dangerous for him.
Then there’s a murder. Stone and his team look into the killing and it’s not long before Stone connects it to another death and to some other things that town leaders have been hiding, as well as to the reason the town needed a new police chief in the first place. In the end, Stone uncovers the truth about the deaths and at the same time, finds himself settling in to his new role.
One element that runs through this novel is a sense of irony. The very job and setting that Stone thought would help him find some peace turn out to be exactly the opposite. But the irony goes even deeper. The very qualities that make Stone an excellent cop and a formidable opponent are damaging to his personal life. Stone trusts absolutely no-one, not even himself entirely. He keeps himself psychologically and emotionally distant from everyone. On one hand, that protects him as he goes up against the town leaders and JoJo Genest. On the other, he’s unable to reach out easily. There are other examples of irony in the novel too.
Stone’s character is also an important element in the novel. He is too heavy a drinker and he carries quite a lot of emotional baggage. So does his ex-wife Jenn. But Stone is refreshingly free of the wallowing and self-destructive behaviour that we see in so many novels. He is reflective and intelligent so he can see what his life has become. He admits his weaknesses and in the end, simply does the best that he can. On a personal level he fumbles his way through the rawness and pain of a recent divorce, as well as a “rebound” sort of relationship with Abby Taylor, the town’s legal advisor. And yet those difficulties don’t keep Stone mired; he gets on with his life.
Professionally, Stone is organised, methodical but not slow, and intuitive. The town leaders don’t expect him to be as perceptive as he turns out to be, either. Stone’s approach to solving the cases gives the novel a hint of the police procedural, but unlike some police procedurals, we know who the “bad guys” are fairly early on. The suspense in the novel doesn’t come from trying to find out whodunit or even whydunit. The reader is privy to those things. Rather, the suspense comes from the “cat and mouse” game between Stone and his enemies. And it’s not hard to cheer for Stone as he unravels the mystery. We can see, too, how he inspires loyalty in many of the people who work for him, and that loyalty pays off handsomely.
Although the novel isn’t what you’d call light, there is a thread of humour running through it, too. At one point, for instance, Stone and Abby are discussing Stone’s feud with JoJo Genest:
“‘Jenn said I was very fierce.’ [Stone]
Abby nodded. ‘Something like that. I suppose you need to be that way if you’re a policeman.’
‘Maybe I’m a policeman because I’m that way,’ Jesse said.
‘And that’s why you’re not scared of JoJo.’
‘It is prudent to be scared of JoJo. It would also be prudent of JoJo to be scared of me.’”
That passage also gives a taste of Parker’s spare, efficient style. Like his sleuth, Parker doesn’t waste words, and that’s part of what keeps the pace and flow of the story moving.
Oh, and one final point is worth making. What’s not to like about a novel that includes lyrics from a Billy Joel song? Really. Here’s Stone’s thought early in the novel as he’s contemplating leaving Los Angeles:
“Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.”
That’s from Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood. See what I mean?
Night Passage features a damaged protagonist who makes no excuses, asks for no pity and simply tries his best to put his life together. The mystery makes sense and the plot doesn’t ask us to stretch our sense of disbelief. There’s also a solid sense of place and a touch of humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Night Passage? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 14 May/Tuesday 15 May – Ripley Under Ground – Patricia Highsmith
Monday 21 May/Tuesday 22 May – Never Apologise, Never Explain – James Craig
Monday 28 May/Tuesday 29 May – The Ice Princess – Camilla Läckberg