Friday, January 20, 2006

Psycho killer, qu'est que c'est?

Going to stop riding one hobby horse to hop on another.

Villains in popular entertainment.

I'm close to throwing in the towel on Robert Parker's Stone Cold. I've been sticking with it because I've been listening to it on tape and enjoying Robert Forster's dry, wised-up tough guy reading. But I don't know why I even started it. I've written before how, while I like Parker's first and greatest detective-hero, Spenser, I'm not much of a fan of Parker's Jesse Stone thrillers.

For one thing, I think Parker gives himself permission to write sloppily in the Stone novels. I don't mean his prose doesn't parse. I mean that he gives in to all sorts of thriller conventions and cliches that he manages to disguise, undercut, and avoid in the Spenser novels and his plots are less carefully worked out.

Stone has already had to do something improbable and dumb that he didn't need to do and that he knew was dumb, which means that Parker was aware he was making a bloomer but he kept at either because he didn't feel like backing up and starting over, and it just made it easier to write the next scene, or he felt it kept the action going, or he's setting up an obvious and unnecesary plot complication down the line.

A lot of writers of mysteries and thrillers seem to think they have an understanding with their readers that they can violate all laws of probability, human nature, and artistic inelligence in order to keep the plot moving and the bodies falling.

In his best Spenser novels, Parker rarely imposes on his readers' patience that way. When he does he usually offers his readers something in return, like humor or a good piece of descriptive writing.

Not much of either in the Stone series.

All mystery novels and thrillers depend on improbable coincidences, but only the worst ones depend on their heroes growing suddenly improbably stupid.

And in the Stone novels the most annoying traits of the Spenser novels get out of hand. In Spenser's world the only men who count are big, violent men who either share Spenser's code of honor or who who have a special code of their own. All other men are wimps, weaklings, or fools. And in Spenser's world, all encounters between Spenser and other men are dominance games, which Spenser always wins.

The same goes for Stone's world, but without the sense of humor.

All that's annoying enough, but in Stone Cold, there's another factor. The Jen factor.

Stone spends a lot of his time off the job moping over his ex-wife Jen. He wants to get back together with her. She wants to get back with him, but she doesn't trust him to stay sober---Stone's an alcoholic who doesn't have his drinking under control but who can resist when he's working and even when he's off duty, sometimes---and she isn't sure he really loves her, partly because he won't give up the drinking, which is one thing keeping them apart, and partly because she suspects him of wanting her to control and possess. So they get together for wistful conversations that lead to nothing but frustration except for the times they lead to sex, after which comes the frustration, and Jesse mopes about it all. He mopes hardest over Jen's love life. She's seeing other men while she's waiting for him to get it together and be worthy of her. This eats him up inside, the poor guy.

But, wait, he's seeing other women. I don't mind that he's blind to his own hypocrisy on this one. I mind that every one he talks to about how miserable he is without Jen, including Jen, is blind to it too.

Nobody worries about Jen's feelings. They're all too busy feeling sorry for Jesse...or not feeling sorry for him and telling him to get over Jen and move on, but that only shows how much they care about the big lug.

So why keep going? There's a new novel coming out next month. Sea Change. I'll probably read it. Or let Robert Forster read it to me. Why?

Probably because like everybody else I enjoy mindless escapism once in a while. And because Parker and I share similar tastes in women. And because I'm nostalgic for the North Shore and Boston area locations. And because I like Spenser and the Stone novels, for all their weaknesses, are part of the Spenser universe. (Stone has made a guest appearance in one of the last two Spensers I read, either Cold Service or School Days, and it says something not good that I can't remember which, doesn't it.)

Still, I'm ready to give it up.

Because of the villains.

A pair of serial killers.

What the devil is the movies', TV's, and mystery writers' fascination with serial killers?

Is it just that they guarantee a high and bloody body count?

Or is there some facet of the twisted American pysche they appeal to that, twisted as I am in most other ways, I don't share?

Or are they just easy?


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