NIGHT PASSAGE (1997) by Robert B. Parker

“Being a homicide cop wasn’t like anything on television, but there wasn’t much point in trying to explain that someone who could never know.”

The late Robert B. Parker will most likely be remembered best for his books featuring Boston private eye Spenser, though I also have a great affection for his more recent series featuring Paradise (Mass) police chief Jesse Stone. Parker, after writing his doctoral thesis on the work of Hammett, Madconald and Chandler, quickly emerged as the front-runner to take over their hardboiled mantle after making his fiction debut with the Spenser novel The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. This is probably why he was chosen to complete Chandler’s final Marlowe novel Poodle Springs, which I previously reviewed here. While Spenser was undeniably a modern and contemporary figure not obviously beholden to the past, the series as a whole succeeded even without truly shaking off its generic roots or moving the private eye novel into the post-Watergate era, not that this was ever a stated aim. This didn’t stop Parker from being amongst the most commercially successful and prolific of his contemporaries, thanks in part to the film and TV adaptations of his novels as well as his work as a screenwriter, either solo or in collaboration with Joan Parker, his wife.

Parker completed nine Jesse Stone novels before his death last year, though the character also makes guest appearances in three other Parker novels featuring either Spenser or his other detective, Sunny Randall:

  • Night Passage (1997)
  • Trouble in Paradise (1998)
  • Death in Paradise (2001)
  • Back Story (2003, a Spenser novel)
  • Stone Cold (2003)
  • Sea Change ( 2006)
  • Blue Screen (2006, a Sunny Randall novel)
  • High Profile (2007)
  • Spare Change (2007, a Sunny Randall novel)
  • Stranger In Paradise (2008)
  • Night and Day ( 2009)
  • Split Image (2010)

The Jesse Stone books in many ways feel more like updated Westerns than detective stories, even though they are on the surface contemporary-set thrillers. In Night Passage, the introductory volume in the series, we first meet Stone at a literal and metaphorical turning point in the road as he waits to sober up and try to start anew. A former LA Homicide Detective, he is in his mid thirties and after the end of his marriage to Jennifer, a wannabe starlet who has started an affair with a producer, he hit the bottle and finally was allowed to resign rather than be fired. To his surprise he has landed a job as Chief of Police in the small (fictional) town of Paradise in north Massachusetts.

Jesse is a compelling character, built along traditionally heroic lines redolent of the Old West. He is more interested in Justice than the Law; but he is also a complex personality, dealing with his own demons and disappointments – at one time he was set for a career as a baseball player but had to give it up due to an injury; his married life ended in betrayal and yet he seems unable to disentangle himself completely from the bonds to his ex-wife despite their divorce; and now his career as a policeman is at a very low ebb and he starts to realise that this is in fact the real reason he was hired in the first place.

(Image: mySAPL)

Hasty Hathaway, who runs the town and controls its bank, is involved in several illegal activities financed by drug money he is laundering and he was after a washed up cop he could control. But this has rebounded on him as Jesse is honest and with only his self-respect left he won’t bargain it away, for this is truly his last chance to reclaim his life. He proves particularly drawn to downtrodden women and other damsels in distress who are at a low ebb in their lives. This includes helping out a young pothead with nothing apparently to look forward to and the abused ex-wife of bully and killer Jo Jo Genest, though there is something vaguely hilarious and strangely po-faced about his frequent suggestions of counseling, especially in the slightly ludicrous subplot involving Hasty’s libidinous wife when photos of her many sexual indiscretions, which she willingly posed for, are mailed to the most prominent people in town. Told mostly in pithy and laconic dialogue in some seventy-odd chapters, this sets up the main characters very well so is an essential read in the series; it is also rather too loosely plotted though, so there’s not much sense of jeopardy and is certainly not the best of the series (personally I prefer Stone Cold).

While it may seem a heretical notion, I have to admit that after reading many of the novels, I find myself truly preferring their television incarnation. Sure, Tom Selleck is about 20 years older than his literary counterpart and the stories were all streamlined to fit their 90-minute running time (plus adverts), but Parker’s dialogue is maintained intact as is the melancholy tone and the essential toughness in the depiction of Jesse himself. He is an alcoholic who is just managing to keep it under control, and while resolutely honest he also gives very little away about himself, even with those closest to him. On television his ex-wife Jenn is never seen and only heard on the telephone (in the books she comes back into his new small-town life).

The TV-movies so far have been as follows:

  1. Stone Cold (2005)
  2. Jesse Stone: Night Passage (2006)
  3. Jesse Stone: Death In Paradise (2006)
  4. Jesse Stone: Sea Change (2007)
  5. Jesse Stone: Thin Ice (2009)
  6. Jesse Stone: No Remorse (2010)
  7. Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost (2011)
  8. Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt (2011)

Michael Brandman, who has written or co-written all the excellent TV adaptations of the books, is now also set to continue the novels and the first, entitled Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues, was published in September 2011. While Selleck is now busy starring in the Blue Bloods series, I hope he and Brandman make more Stone movies. They are well worth getting on DVD.

The Robert B. Parker homepage (www.robertbparker.net/) is still being updated and for a loving and heartfelt tribute to the man and his work, check out Jeff Pierce’s two-part article over at his ever wonderful blog The Rap Sheet.

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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4 Responses to NIGHT PASSAGE (1997) by Robert B. Parker

  1. Ela says:

    I’ve not read any of Parker’s novels, but this one sounds interesting. Thanks!

    • Hi Ela, thanks for visiting. I included one of Parker’s books (the Spenser novel, Looking for Rachel Wallace) in my Top 100 and I do really rate his work – and although i probably should have made more of it in my review, his dialogue is often very witty and can really crackle. Hope you get round to him soon. I reviewed Night Passage because it’s the right place to start (the beginning) even though it’s not the best of them but I wouldn’t want to undersell Parker or his books in any way.

  2. Colin says:

    Never read any of the books but I have seen the first three TV movies. I thought they were excellent vehicles for Selleck – he has that blend of old west ruggedness and contemporary angst about him that just seems to fit the character like a glove. I must start picking some of these up on DVD.

    • Really glad you liked them too – about halfway through they stopped adapting the books (probably a good idea actually) with Selleck and Brandman writing brand new stories with Parker’s blessing – the plotting gets looser but the character is retained rock solid. In their own low-key ways these are just superb little films – I’ve got them all now on DVD and re-watch them regularly. The last 3 follow on from each other to a certain degree so are worth watching on sequence if you can (going back to that other conversation we were having).

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