Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, April 7, 2017


Split Image by Robert B. Parker (2010)

Not really a "Forgotten Book," but perhaps an overlooked one.

And therein lies the rub.

When Robert B. Parker burst onto the publishing scene, he became -- if not instantly, then very soon thereafter -- a admired writer to watch.  His character Spenser was a breathe of fresh air on the P.I. landscape.  His novels were exceedingly readable and gritty, if not too realistic.

That Parker was a passable and sometime irritating writer slowly dawned on many readers.  His books began to appear padded...lots of white space, large type, big margins, short sentences mostly consisting of clipped dialog, scenes that added nothing to the plot but extended the page count well beyond that of a novella.  A Parker novel of 300 pages could be read in less than three hours.  Many readers, enthusiastic at first, gave up on the author.  Luckily there were new readers to come on board, some inspired by the Spenser for Hire television series (1985-1988) and some by the good reputation of his earlier books.

I think his basic problem was that he was too maudlin in his writings.  His books (and many of his characters) espouse a romantic ideal.  Usually this can be a good thing; the classic P.I. in literature is a romantic character, facing seemingly unbeatable odds, titling at windmills, embodying the virues of honor and chivalry.  Parker, however, took this ideal to an extreme.  You have a feeling that his main characters are looking down at you from their exalted height.  Love (as opposed to sex) is something that is approached with the attitude of an overly sensitive teenager.  Women (well, Susan Silverman and some others) are viewed as ultra-perfect Madonnas -- which is one reason why Susan Silverman is one of the most annoying characters in mystery fiction.  Regular secondary characters -- no matter how bad -- look up to the protagonist with admiration and awe.   Some of this was born from Parker's own personal relationships which (IMHO) was magnified in some of the characters he inflicted on us.  This maudlin side of Parker was evinced in full bloom with his 1983 standalone novel Love and Glory, an excretable exercise that truly needed a good editor and/or a paper shredder.

For myself, I managed to stay with Parker until the mid-nineties.  There were too many other bright and shiny things grabbing my attention.  Shortly after that time, Parker began launching other series.  Jesse Stone came in 1997 and Sunny Randall in 1999; western characters Cole and Hitch appeared in 2008; several YA books were also published.

Recently, I've been catching up with Parker's book.  I am torn about this because a part me feels that I'm being played, yet his books are absolute pageturners.. It turns out that Parker, like Dean Koontz (another writer I like despite his faults), can be absolutely addictive.  Go figure.


Split Image is a Jesse Stone novel, the last that Parker published before his death.  Stone is the police chief of Paradise, Massahusetts, a North Shore Massachusetts town.  A former Los Angeles cop, Stone is hung up on his ex-wife (who will sleep with just about anyone to further her career) and is a functional (sometimes, just barely) drunk, but Stone -- like Spenser -- is a man of honor and compassion -- a man who would rather do what's right than what may by in the rule book.  When Stone speaks I hear the voice of Tom Selleck, who has played the character in a number of television movies; for me, that's a good thing.  I like Jesse Stone much more than I like Spenser.

At this point in the series, Stone is having a relationship with Sunny Randall, the detective from one of Spenser's other series.  All three of Parker's contemporary heroes share the same universe and a number of the same characters (cops, thugs, lawyers, and the over-hyped Susan Silverman) can pop up at any time).  Randall is also a flawed character, still in love with her ex-husband who is married to another woman and is the father of a new child.

Two plot threads interweave in Split Image, the body of a thug is found with a bullet in his head.  The dead man worked as muscle for Reggie Galen, a mobster who lives in Paradise.  Nest door to Galen is Knocko Moynihan, another mobster and Reggie's brother-in-law.  Both Reggie and Knocko are supposedly (ha!) no longer involved in criminal enterprises.  Each married a beautiful identical twin who use sexual games as a tool for power.  At the same time, Sunny Randall is hired by the parents of an 18-year-old girl who is living at an odd religious retreat in Paradise.  The parents want Sunny to kidnap the girl and bring her home, but their concern is not for their daughter but their own reputation and standing in society.  Sunny refuses but agrees to talk to the girl to see if she is there at her of her own free will.  The parents hire someone else to kidnap the girl and place her in a phony residential psychiatric hospital, drugged to the limit.  Of course, Sunny has to save the girl.

There are a few more twists in both narratives.  Both Stone and Sunny don't do much.  Things fall neatly into place by the end of the book.  In each instance deus seems to have ex machina-ed its way into the conclusion conveniently.  Stone and Randall spend a lot of time talking bout their personal problems.  In the end (SPOILER!) Stone is pretty much over his ex and Randall is pretty much over her ex and things may become a little brighter for the two.  Both characters (as well as Spencer and Virg and Hitch) have had their series posthumously continued by other writers.  i haven't approached those books yet so it can't say how things turn out for the two.

Split Image is a fast read.  You may want to give it a try.  You may -- like me -- find the damned series addictive.


  1. My love loves the Jesse Stone books and the TV movies based loosely on the novels. You're right about Parker bursting on the mystery scene. He was compared to Hammett and Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

  2. I gave up on reading Parker (I almost wrote "Spenser") back in the Spenser days. I do enjoy the Jesse Stone series, which are now available on DVD.

  3. While I can barely remember anything from the two Spenser novels I've read (I've seen more Spenser movies, I think, between Urich and Mantegna). Most of what I remember from Parker is from POODLE SPRINGS...I tend to think he was an appropriate choice to finish that fragment...didn't read the other one, or anything else by Parker yet. Thanks for the warning on the standalone...the Stone movies are pleasant, the two or so I've caught.