Spenser (with an “s” like the poet) was always a fav of mine -- what English teacher wouldn’t like him? (Actually, it was really Hawk I watched for.) But then I asked Netflix for a list of Ridley Scott movies and here was Jesse Stone, a Tom Selleck incarnation of a Parker hero and a big success. So I ordered all the Jesse Stone movies they had and they were great. By this time I realize I’m really watching for Robert B. Parker. And that means his books. So I went over to the Valier library and found a whole shelf. At least.
I checked out an armload and got to work. What is it that so captures people about Robert Parker books? He had a Boston University Ph.D. and taught college for a while, so he was attumed to young people, but he said (and why would I quibble?) that his secret was his long marriage. Constancy and faithfulness to family (however defined) were key. Something like that was his practice of writing five pages every day except Sunday, very much like my blogging the same amount every day, including Sunday. Doesn’t make me better, but it’s a good thing to do. That practice (I don’t really like to call it a discipline because after you’ve been doing it a while, it becomes a need, an itch, even a craving) increases one’s skill. One’s writing becomes tighter, more spare, maybe more vivid. He didn’t really seem to mind a few cliches and neither do I. He uses a lot of street talk. Sometimes he sounds like Tim. Of course, 1986 street talk is a little dated.
By now I’ve read “Taming a Sea-horse” which is 1986 Spenser in which he goes looking for a girl who’s been sucked into prostitution (wrong verb, probably, since she wasn’t very passive -- more of a sucker than a sea horse, certainly no duchess but pretty indiscriminate.), gets threatened, and succeeds -- for what it’s worth. The five pages a day become short chapters, 35 of them, straightforward, just about ready for a movie shoot as scenes. “Susan” is there and contributes theory. I can’t remember what was the cutting edge stuff in 1986. She thinks hookers and their pimps fall in love. AIDS doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.
Since Spenser is looking for a prostitute, he ends up where they are. Here’s one whoremonger’s “sophisticated” outfit: “. . . if Walt Disney had been obsessed with sex and dominance, and was uncertain of his manhood and had grown up reading the novels of H. Rider Haggard and had the sensibility of a dung beetle, he’d have founded a chain of clubs just like this.” There’s a complex of stuff in this statement. On the one hand we all have the satisfaction of what seems like a thorough put-down. It’s a pretty good “take-down” on childish values, uneducated romance, and hopelessly low motives. On the other hand, it’s a snob’s opinion. Isn’t Parker making fun of us, who are reading all this made-up nonsense? How the heck does HE know what an expensive mob scene is like? What the movies show? (How would we know any different?) We hear a LOT about clothes, nail polish colors, what the characters are eating and drinking, the shops along the sidewalks where Spenser goes. This seems to be persuasive: a lot of the “New Journalists” seem to think such “factoids” are important. Product placement.
Jesse Stone is supposed to be darker and more damaged than Spenser. Tom Selleck plays him as older, which Selleck is, but Parker thought it worked. Here are the first two paragraphs of the beginning of the first Jesse Stone book, “Night Passage.”
“At the end of the continent, near the foot of Wilshire Boulevard, Jesse Stone stood and leaned on the railing in the darkness above the Santa Monica beach and stared at nothing, while below him the black ocean rolled away toward Japan.
“There was no traffic on Ocean Avenue. There was the comfortless light of the streetlamps, but they were behind him. Before him was the uninterrupted darkness above the repetitive murmur of the disdainful sea.”
Almost sounds as though we might be headed into post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s not Mishima, but it’s poetic and existential. Parker made Selleck promise that none of the scripts (which were considerably changed) would ever drop two premises: Jesse Stone can NOT quit drinking and he can NOT quit loving his former wife. The meshing of those two factors is what makes the character tick and keeps him appealing. He’s actually Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke.” He will never turn away from Miss Kitty and he will never sully his badge.
Comparing “Night Passage” the book with the movie is very useful. Both are fairly straightforward plots with the emphasis on character. There are passages of lyrical writing. The movie is beautiful throughout. (The director was a cameraman in his early years.) The setting is more-or-less Marblehead, which is picturesque anyway. In Jesse’s world there are two kinds of women besides his selfish and fickle ex-wife. One kind is stick-thin but glamorous women who fall into bed before even going on their first date, and the other is the inappropriate (black, married, too old, too young, too ugly, a nun) but brave and smart helping woman. The black one does the repartee. Jesse says, “I know you’re married but if you decide to have an affair, will you let me know?” She says as her exit line, “I’ll put you on the list.” (She’s not in the book.) Jesse Stone is his own Hawk. In the movie he is accompanied everywhere by a dog and lives in a house accessed along a gangway over the water. Gorgeous moons and sunrises.
This book has 77 five-page units. The book version is a lot meaner and dirtier, since the movie was meant for television and needed a more, let’s say, “family” tone. More bad guys in the movie are just foolish. The racist posse comitatus is gone. Tom Selleck is such a big humorous lunk of a guy, he never really gets into dark stuff. Compare the BBC “Mystery Theatre” series like “Cracker” or “Wire in the Blood.” Robson Green has very much the same sort of humorous, tolerant, but irremediably damaged sort of persona. The scripts are mostly taken from the novels of Val McDermid, truly perverse and twisted stuff, but intensely elaborate descriptions of psychosis. I bought one of her novels, finished it -- gritting my teeth -- and slipped it into the garbage. By the time Green and his producer work things over, they are slightly improved but Brits have an appetite for ghastly tortures that’s far beyond that of we Disneyfied yanks.
Towards the end Parker was writing Westerns. Some would say he was writing them all along. “Appaloosa” strongly echoes “Gunsmoke” on the screen. I’ll have to round up the book. In summary, Parker is clearly a genre writer -- never going over the heads of his readers and supplying enough detail for them to fantasize being able to walk into wicked places and “handle themselves.” But they should not imagine that it is any less imaginary than Greek drama with masks. The Big Man with the lovable flaw. We can’t resist. Shakespeare, after all, was also a genre writer.