There always has been something very satisfying about finishing a new Robert B. Parker novel, all of which are so complete and satisfying. But alas, there is a sadness that accompanies the last page of SPLIT IMAGE, the first book released since his death in January. Indeed, while I am sure it was not done intentionally, the novel reads like a valediction for the two non-Spenser protagonists created in the 1990s: Jesse Stone, the chief of police for a small Massachusetts town, and Sunny Randall, the female private eye from Boston.
SPLIT IMAGE is also one of those titles that perfectly reflects what the book is about. Years ago, the late, great mystery author Ed McBain told me that he always tried to get titles that worked on multiple levels. So, for instance, ICE could be something you fall on in the winter, but it could also be slang for stolen diamonds or killing somebody. In SPLIT IMAGE, Jesse and Sunny, who had a brief affair in Beverly Hills many years ago, find themselves involved in two perplexing but unrelated cases in Paradise. Jesse's case starts when a soldier for a retired mobster is bumped off, and he soon finds that the mobster just happens to live next door to another mobster, one who is not so retired. They are not rivals as far as anybody knows. As a matter of fact, they are both married to sisters who are identical twins, hence a "split image."
Meanwhile, Sunny has been hired by the parents of a young woman who has run off to join a quasi-religious group in a town called "The Renewal." The group seems harmless enough, but they just might have a split image of their own --- and it could be far more sinister. Sunny is stifled when the young woman is apparently willing and happy to stay with the group while her parents are considerably shady and ready to break the law.
The genius of Robert B. Parker is that he was far more than a mystery writer. These books work on different levels. Indeed, as another great mystery writer, Lawrence Block, pointed out to me, Parker was writing romance rather than realism. The Stone and Randall books are not police procedurals or "whodunits" in the traditional sense. They are about deeply flawed protagonists searching for something greater than their lives and incapable of being anything other than knights-errant.
Chief Stone is a functioning alcoholic; he says in this book, "I made chief because the selectman at the time wanted a drunk they could control." And his problem with alcohol in the series stems from the torch he has carried for his ex-wife, Jenn. Unlike earlier books, Jenn does not make an appearance here. But when Jesse interviews the mobsters and meets their loving, attentive identical wives, he goes on a bender and ends up "passed out from strong drink." His faithful aid, Molly, covers up for him.
Sunny has had problems of her own in the past with her love for ex-husband Richie, who is now remarried and has a child. Sunny is far more in control than Jesse when she comes to him for help with her case. In fact, she goes around using the name "Stone" as an alias in her undercover work, perhaps trying it on for size like a young girl in love might do. She tells Jesse, "I think more highly of you than you think of yourself."
Again with the split image reference, Parker shows us two characters who are the split image of one another, circling carefully around, nursing their past wounds and looking for a possible new start. And as with the Spenser novels, there are multiple visits to the psychologist's and therapist's office in this book, with Sunny's shrink being none other than the love of Spenser's life, Dr. Susan Silverman. Fictional Boston, it turns out, is a small world indeed.
Has any mystery writer ever referred to modern psychiatry and analysis more than Parker? This is yet another thing that differentiates Parker from the hard-boiled, noir authors on which he did his doctoral dissertation. In noir, the protagonists can identify and even bravely battle their internal demons. But fate has destined them to fail, even if it is ultimately a heroic failure. Classic noir is existential to the core. Parker was far too optimistic to be a noir writer, and perhaps that was the secret of his success. Readers liked Spenser, Jesse and Sunny; they wanted them to succeed and wanted to believe that happy endings were still possible.
If SPLIT IMAGE is the last time we will read about Jesse and Sunny, readers will not be disappointed or saddened by the ending as this just might be the best of the Jesse Stone novels. And it is certainly Parker at his best, with 67 tightly written chapters spread over 277 enjoyable pages. As a novelist, I have been constantly amazed over the years by his ability to write cinematic, character-driven chapters of just four pages each. As a writer, that is not easy to do. The narrative discipline required to do that is remarkable. Robert B. Parker was able to do it every time out. Read SPLIT IMAGE, and you will see that we have lost a great writer. But the work lives on forever.