When it comes to writing the private eye mystery, Robert B. Parker
is one of the all-time greats. His Spenser novels, now numbering 33
books over three decades, rank right up there with the works of
Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.
So it took some courage for Parker to introduce a new series in
1997 featuring a police chief named Jesse Stone in the small,
coastal Massachusetts town of Paradise. SEA CHANGE is the fifth
book in a series that has become essential reading for fans of both
Parker and mysteries in general.
Of course, comparisons between the two protagonists are inevitable,
especially since Chief Stone's beat is just a short drive away from
Spenser's Boston. Stone is a former LAPD homicide detective whose
drinking problem and busted marriage drove him to exile in the
ironically named town of Paradise. And while Spenser tells his
stories from the first person viewpoint, we observe Jesse from a
distance in the third person.
But Jesse Stone might end up being Parker's most interesting
creation. Whereas Spenser is the classic knight errant, a sensitive
superman, Jesse is much more deeply flawed, struggling to deal with
his imperfect life, a battle he wages one day at a time.
SEA CHANGE opens with Jesse sober for ten months and thirteen days.
Despite leaving LA, he never stopped loving his ex-wife Jenn, and
now they are trying to reconcile and give living together another
shot, even as Jesse attempts to understand how his smothering love
drove her away in the first place. It is also the month of the big
yacht races off Paradise, a kind of New England version of Mardi
Gras for rich folks with boats.
Then the body of a woman washes up on shore with no identification.
Eventually, Jesse discovers that she was the 34-year-old daughter
of a rich family in Florida. More digging by a detective in Ft.
Lauderdale finds that the dead woman had in her possession at home
an amateur sex tape in which she played the starring role.
Jesse starts investigating the yachts anchored off Paradise from
Ft. Lauderdale and finds a bunch of arrogant rich people and hints
of a cover-up.
Just as with all books by Parker, this one is a fast-paced,
brilliantly written story. Utilizing the tremendous eye for detail
and short chapters he is famous for, Parker interweaves and moves
dual stories forward: Jesse's investigation into a possible crime
and his own personal battles.
His case stalls and it seems that everybody he meets is lying or
covering up something. He finds that two of the yacht owners are
seducing and then videotaping young, sometimes underage, girls
aboard their boats. And as much as he would like to link these sex
tapes to the death of the woman, there is no hard evidence that a
murder has been committed. So he keeps digging. At the same time,
he worries about his own objectification of Jenn and the effects
this has on their relationship.
As demonstrated by the self and professional psychoanalysis he
engages in, Jesse Stone is not your typical police chief. He
doesn't wear a uniform, preferring instead jeans and a baseball
jacket. And he is rather liberal and easygoing in asserting his
authority. His playful yet intelligent banter with his female
officer and dispatcher, Molly, is a true delight.
But he does share one trait with his literary cousin in Boston,
Spenser. And that is the way he does his detective work. "But I got
no other way to go about this than to keep prying and asking and
pushing and poking and looking around," he maintains. At another
point he says, "My usual approach is to blunder in and shake the
sack and sees what falls out."
But like Spenser, he has an unshakable moral code. The one thing he
will not do is let things go, even if he cannot guarantee full
justice will be served. And when the case takes an unexpected turn,
he will unearth unspeakable evil that has gone on for
SEA CHANGE is a mystery that packs a surprise wallop at the end.
Robert B. Parker has created another excellent mystery series.
Jesse Stone might not get the 30-plus stories that Spenser has
richly deserved over the years, but he is a well-rounded, complex
character who cares about people and doing the right thing. He is
somebody you can't help but enjoy reading about. Mystery fans
should read this book and then eagerly await the next entry in the
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011