- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

SPLIT IMAGE

By Robert B. Parker

Putnam, $25.95, 277 pages

REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY

So far, the new year has not been kind to some of our best mystery writers. Both Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker went on to their rewards within a month of each other. Both were giants of the mystery/crime fiction field. Both will be missed.

Fortunately for their many readers, both men left behind completed manuscripts. One in the case of Francis, and three in Parker‘s, two Spensers and “Split Image,” the final novel featuring Paradise, Mass., Police Chief Jesse Stone. (Yes, the same Jesse Stone played by Tom Selleck in some good made-for-TV movies on CBS.)

This is not Bob Parker’s best Jesse Stone novel. But it’s Chief Stone’s last case and it’s readable. Funny and suspenseful, as all of Parker’s work is, but perhaps just a shade less bright than his best. It features the competent and sharp-witted Stone fighting crime and his own overfondness for the bottle alongside his attractive ensemble cast, including officers Molly Crane and Luther “Suitcase” Simpson (extra enjoyment points for those who remember the 1950s baseball player of the same name).

In recent years, Parker had added interest to his franchise by cross-pollinating the books of his three series characters, with recurring characters from one appearing in the others. In “Split Image,” Boston P.I. Sunny Randall, who has been around since Parker created her in 1999 in “Family Honor,” shows up in Paradise on a case and continues a budding romance with Stone. Randall, with some issues about her ex-husband and whether she’s over him, is seeing (professionally) Dr. Susan Silverman, a clinical psychologist and the sometimes-annoying main squeeze of Boston P.I. Spenser (no first name is ever given), Parker’s main claim to fame who came on the scene in “The Godwulf Manuscript” in 1973.

Trouble in Paradise in this episode begins when Simpson finds the body of Petrov Ognowski in the back of an abandoned SUV. Stone soon connects the dearly departed to two gangsters who live next door to each other in Paradise and who are married to twin sisters so much alike even their husbands have trouble telling them apart. The case, and the lives of just about everyone involved, is complicated because the sisters enjoy fooling men individually, or entertaining them together.

Ognowski is a low-level foot soldier. But things are complicated later when a high-ranking crime figure is found dead on Paradise Beach. While Stone sorts out the gangsters and their kinky wives, Randall’s case has her in town to try to separate an 18-year-old from a shady group that has her within its grasp. This case is complicated when Randall learns enough about the parents to wonder if the young woman might be better off with the group. Ultimately, Randall and her gay friend Spike spend as much time social working as detecting.

Neither of these cases is compelling. But over the decades Parker’s many readers haven’t returned to him again and again - he wrote more than 60 novels which sold millions of copies - for good cases or to learn who done it. They’ve come back to see how Parker’s engaging characters engage the world. That’s the reason to read “Split Image.”

As Parker had multiple hard-cover and paperback publishers, it would be difficult to calculate how many millions of copies his books have sold. But he was no stranger to the best-seller list with his 37 novels featuring Boston P.I. Spenser, a tough but literate ex-boxer who’s every bit as complex and interesting as the Philip Marlowes, the Sam Spades and the Lew Archers he succeeded. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, who gave us those older guys, were out of the “hard-boiled” school, giving us cynical, tough guys on the mean streets.

Parker’s characters are tough, too, and they travel some fairly mean streets. But they’re more over-easy than hard-boiled. Spenser, Randall and Stone can deal with bad guys, but they also know how to have a good time. There’s no angst or world-weariness that came along with the older detectives in the noir world.

Parker’s stories are told in lean, lively, fast-moving and insistent prose. The stories never lag. The dialogue is brisk, funny and to the smart-alecky side. Anyone who can read a Parker novel without laughing is a hard case indeed. Along with the action and the humor, Parker parses such matters as autonomy, personal responsibility, courage, fidelity, the meaning of work in our lives and what it means to be a man or a woman in our post-everything society. His novels are smart as well as fun, and the Parker worldview is worth the price of admission.

“Split Image” can stand alone. But readers new to Parker will probably enjoy this story more by starting with 1997’s “Night Passage” and reading the Jesse Stone series in order. This is easy enough to do, as the popular Parker’s large back-list is still in print.

Parker died of a heart attack while writing at his desk at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on Jan. 18 at the age of 77.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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