Having tried out Robert B. Parker in Hundred-Dollar Baby, I decided to give some of his other characters a try. High Profile is the latest Jesse Stone novel, and it also features Parker's other character, Sunny Randall, as well. A sequel to Blue Screen, this novel continues the relationship between these two characters as well as giving Jesse a difficult case to tackle in Paradise, the small Massachusetts town where he acts as sheriff. Unlike the previous Parker book I read, however, these characters failed to impress me, making Parker's staccato writing style more annoying than it was before. Add boring secondary characters to the mix, and it's only the mystery that holds any interest whatsoever. In a character-based series, that's not a good thing.
Prominent radio talk-show host Walton Weeks is found hanging from a tree with gunshot wounds to the chest; a woman's body is found discarded in a dumpster behind a local diner. Are these two cases connected? Sheriff Jesse Stone and the cops on his staff have to find the answer quickly as the media swarm prepares to hit. Weeks is a close friend of the governor, increasing the heat, especially when clues seem scarce. Meanwhile, Sunny Randall is back in town, and they continue their pseudo-relationship as both have to deal with the connections they feel to their respective ex-spouses. It doesn't help that Jane, Jesse's ex-wife, claims to have been raped and that she is now being stalked by the guy. Jesse gets Sunny to look into that, but he may have to deal with it anyway. Isn't it always the way that family problems get in the way just when you're the busiest? Jesse has to put all this to rest before everything goes insane.
High Profile isn't a bad book, necessarily - it's just extremely average. Parkerís style moves things along at a fast clip, so you certainly can't say that it bogs down. But none of the characters are that interesting, and when they are, they're also annoying. Jane is the epitome of this, a local newscaster who could have been an interesting character. But Parker gives her the personality of a limp noodle: she's excessively whiny, extremely needy, and her dialogue is atrocious. Even when she is a potential rape victim (and I'm not saying whether what she says is true or not), she garners no sympathy, not only because of her actions but because I just couldn't care less about her.
Parker does a little better with Jesse and Sunny, but not much. Jesse can be interesting when he's trying to solve a case, and I love his relationship with Molly (his second in command at the station). But the way Parker writes dialogue in this book makes Jesse seem like a simpleton at times. When he's investigating, it seems like an act to knock the people he's talking to off guard. It's when he's dealing with relationships that he's horribly done. Not only that, but for a man with a supposed drinking problem, it seems surprisingly easy for him to have just one drink. He and Sunny (as well as he and Jane) constantly discuss the situation they're all in, but no progress is ever really made. Yes, one decision is finally made at the end of the novel, but it seems more like a default "I don't want to do anything, so status quo" decision rather than something arrived at through introspection. I like character dilemmas in my mysteries as they deepen my attachment to the people inhabiting the novel, but not when it's this superficial.
So the characters are annoying and insipid at times. What about the plot? The mysteries take a couple of intriguing turns, and Parker develops an array of good characters as prospects for the murderer(s). Of course, that's until he makes them talk. Jesse has to weigh everything and sift through the lies and new information that comes out to finally get to the truth. The mystery is solved at last, but closure never comes completely. I'm not big on ambiguous endings, but this one is satisfying enough because we know what happened and Jesse knows what happened. We just don't know if justice will ever be truly served. Parker definitely has a way of coming up with interesting cases.
Too bad that his writing style doesn't hold up to it. I recognize some aspects of my problems with this book in Hundred-Dollar Baby , but I enjoyed that one so much that I was able to avoid thinking about them. This time, I can't. The pace of Parker's writing is very regular, like somebody pounding on a drum repeatedly. Sentences are short, dialogue is brief, and it's rare to get a paragraph of description more than just three lines that have to do with what the character is doing while he or she is talking. This sparse style can be great if you're illuminating the characters through dialogue, but when the dialogue is inane and the characters are aggravating, the prose just grates on your nerves.
Parker has one of the most annoying prose habits I have ever read, though if I hadn't read a couple of passages from the book to my wife, I may not have noticed. One thing I hate is when authors go through literary gymnastics to avoid using the word "said." Instead, they say "Cole breathed" or "Larry stated" or whatever. Parker takes it to the other extreme. He never uses any word but "said." As I said, I didn't notice it before I read it out loud, but once I did, it was like having a sharpened stick poking under my fingernails. It does give the dialogue a rhythm, but it's not a pleasant one.
If you're a fan of the characters already, you most likely already know this. If you're not already a fan, I would suggest sticking to the Spenser novels. The characters in that series seem to overshadow irritations that arise from Parker's style. I may withhold judgment on that until I try another one. I would certainly not recommend starting with High Profile, however. Fans will probably love it. The rest of us? Not so much.