Although a vast improvement over "Laguna Heat", Parker's first novel, "Silent Joe" really should have not opened his mouth at all. This reviewer is amazed that this book won an Edgar. There must have been very slim pickings that year.
The characters, especially the protagonist, Joe Trona, are unconvincing. Most of them hardly rise above the level of trite stereotypes. The crooked, low-class bureaucrat with the working-class name who is almost indistinguishable from the same character cast as a union boss/thug. The venal, sinful, wealth-accumulating evangelist who gambles, womanizes, consults astrologers and is mixed up in every shady political deal in Southern California. The eleven-year-old girl who has a calmness of mind in a crisis that would be the envy of every James Bond wannabe on the planet is totally unbelievable as is her allegedly crazy brother who seems to have no plan beyond revenge against their filthy rich father. The only characters who seem to have any motivation are Joe and his father Will, who is stone cold dead before the end of page twenty-two.
Joe's motivations, in fact all his character traits, are totally unbelievable. He acts like an automaton one minute and like a person with impulse control issues the next. He defers to anyone and everyone, especially his adoptive father, Will, who treats him like a servant whom he does not like very much. Joe has bizarre habits that he claims come from being "institutionalized" in a county children's home from the time he was less than a year old until he was about five. This just doesn't wash. Nobody, not even this neurotic becomes so institutionalized by age five that they only feel comfortable eating from compartmentalized trays. If human psychology were so, we would all want to eat while sitting in highchairs. One of the most unbelievable things in this book is left unstated. That is the idea that someone who is this obviously neurotic and emotionally crippled could possibly have passed the psychological tests for any police or sheriff department in the country.
Parker also seems more than willing to display his almost complete ignorance of police procedure and firearms, including referring to a "Smith" .357 when it is clear that he means a "Smith & Wesson" .357. Of course it really doesn't matter what he calls it since he says its "always loaded and always ready" and then he put it back into a floor safe with a dial combination lock! Yeah, really handy there, Joe! That's what a push-button combination wall safe is for. The police procedure followed (or I should say, not followed) in this book is, to anyone in the know, laughable.
Beyond the unbelievable and one-dimensional characters and the sloppy and unconvincing police procedures is the general tone and quality of the writing. Short, choppy sentences and sentence fragments can and do add to the pace and tension of a mystery or suspense novel, but this entire book is full of them, even when they not only don't contribute to pace and tension, but actually detract from them. Parker's background as a writer with several small-market media outlets is painfully apparent in his style. He needs to elevate the sophistication of his writing beyond the fifth-grade level of modern American journalism if he expects to engage mature mystery novel readers. Yet this is still an improvement over "Laguna Heat" in which Parker seemed to be trying to prove to us that he actually owned a dictionary and thesaurus.
The lack of a convincing plot is the most glaring defect in this work. Despite several attempts to introduce plot twists and turns, they are all so transparent, simplistic, trite and derivative that they are hardly worthy of a bad made for TV Movie-Of-The-Week. Anyone who is genuinely surprised by any element of this plot should take Remedial Mystery Reading 101 and go back to reading "Nancy Drew" until they grow some sophistication.
As a former investigator, budding mystery writer and long-time mystery reader, I have, so far, been very disappointed in all that I have read from T. Jefferson Parker. He has been highly touted by members of the local mystery book group and I was expecting better. I was also expecting better from the MWA in their choice of Edgar winners.
All in all it appears that Parker really wasn't interested in writing a police procedural despite having a sheriff's deputy as his protagonist. Like his first book, "Laguna Heat", the police procedure takes a back seat to his attempt at writing hard-boiled noir. This attempt might have come off better if Joe had been a PI rather than a cop. One might have been more willing to accept Joe's neuroses, personality disorders, odd behavior and choice of personal weapons (which even Chandler's and Spillane's cheapest gunsels would have eschewed). Noir and 21st Century Southern California is a difficult enough concoction to brew without trying to add a cop protagonist to the cauldron. It just doesn't work.