Paradise, Massachusetts Chief of Police Jesse Stone in what passes for one of his lighter moments on what passes for one of his better days in the CBS television movies based on Robert B. Parker’s novels. Series star Tom Selleck with Kohl Sudduth as Officer “Suitcase” Simpson.
Watched Innocents Lost, the most recent of Tom Selleck’s series of Jesse Stone made for TV movie mysteries, last night. The series is based on the novels by Robert B. Parker, but Selleck made Stone his own even before Parker died. He’s not the first actor to steal a character away from the writer who created him.
Parker created Stone in order to have a leading man who could do things Spenser couldn’t do, have sex with different women, screw up, and…die. Not that it definitely would have happened, but who knows. Agatha Christie killed Poirot. Conan Doyle killed Holmes and would have preferred to leave him dead. If Parker had lived long enough, he might have seen he was working his way to an inevitable of his own devising. Jesse Stone is mortal in a way Spenser isn’t. Besides existing in the third person, which means that there’s a narrator who can witness Stone’s death and survive to tell us about it, Jesse is prone to mistakes and bad judgment. He’s tough but he’s not strong the way Spenser is strong. Jesse’s strength is decidedly not as the strength of ten because his heart is far from pure.
But there’s one more thing. Spenser is a happy man. He likes his life and he enjoys being alive. He is content within himself. Jesse wants out of his life and out of his self. He doesn’t have an explicit death wish but the only reason he has to live is the possibility that things will get better, and he’s not at all sure that that possibility is real.
This doesn’t make Jesse careless or reckless. It just means he has less reason to think his way out of a dire situation. And it makes him more likely to be fatalistic and give in to his fatalism at what would then become a literally fatal moment. I don’t recall Parker ever putting Stone in that sort of danger, where the threat comes as much from within as from without. But the option was always open for him if he decided it was time to end the series in a dramatic and tragic way. Stone would get himself into a situation from which he sees no way out because he wasn’t watching where he was going when he was on his way in. Spenser always watches out for himself. Plus, he has Hawk.
And Susan. And Quirk. And Belson, and Lee Farrell, Chollo, Teddy Sapp, and Vinnie Morris. Spenser would see the point of sacrificing himself, he just wouldn’t ever have to. The angels, and not a few devils, are on his side to pull him back from the edge.
Stone is mostly alone except for his personal demons who would gleefully give him a push.
That’s the fundamental difference between Jesse and Spenser. Spenser is essentially a comic character. Stone a potentially tragic one.
In his novels, Spenser puts things back together. Jesse is what most needs putting back together. His heart and his spirit are broken. His psyche is fractured.
Basically, he’s a mess.
The reason he hasn’t come completely apart or, to put it another way, what holds him together is his sense of responsibility to the people he has sworn to serve and protect.
Jesse is the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts, a tourist and fishing village just north of Boston. He’s lucky to have the job. Stone’s an alcoholic. He drank himself out of a marriage and out of his job as a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department, having drunk himself into a demotion from detective. He’s taken the job in Paradise out of desperation, convinced that he doesn’t deserve it or any position of responsibility. It doesn’t help that he’s aware he was only offered it because the town’s corrupt board of selectmen who hired him want a screw-up as chief, because, they expect, he’ll be easy to control.
Of course, they’re wrong. The point is, though, that Jesse is worried they’re right, at least in believing he’s a screw-up.
Spenser has nothing to prove. Jesse has everything to prove, to others but especially to himself.
So with Jesse Stone Parker had a hero who could brood, and sulk, and give in to self-pity and despair. Which meant he could tell grittier, darker, and more “realistic” but also more Romantic stories.
Noticed I capitalized Romantic?
Spenser is a figure out of Arthurian romances. Jesse is a Romantic hero, arriving in Paradise, by way of Wuthering Heights.
But here’s where I’ve always thought Parker goofed. He made Jesse too young and too romantic.
Small r this time.
Stone is in his thirties. Which means that he has a great deal of life ahead of him. His future is full of bright possibilities…if… If Jesse can prove himself---and in every novel he does---and get clean and sober---a trickier proposition---he can leave Paradise for a better job. He might meet someone he’s worthy of loving, marry, and start a family. He might survive, thrive, and prosper. He might be…
Now, no matter how realistic or Romantic Parker intended him, Jesse is trapped in a genre the conventions of which are such that he must triumph at the end of every novel. He always solves the mystery. Things get messy along the way, there are costs he regrets, he hasn’t put any of his demons to rest, just kept them at bay, but he succeeds. Professionally, at any rate.
So it just makes sense that it’s only a matter of time before Stone can leave Paradise and move on to bigger and better things. We see, again and again, that the demons, the self-doubt, the personal foibles and failings, the drinking, the brooding, the angst and the moments of existential despair aren’t getting in his way, and since they aren’t preventing him from doing his job and doing it well, very well, they begin to feel like gimmicks for Parker to use to keep Jesse stuck in Paradise.
He can’t leave until he’s sure he’s clean and sober. He can’t leave until he works things out with his ex-wife. He can’t leave until he stops regretting he his past and learns to focus on his future. He can’t leave until…
I think Parker began to sense this was getting annoying---that Jesse was getting annoying and readers were thinking, Get over it already!---and he began to work out another reason for keeping Jesse where he was. He was liking it there.
He liked being chief. He liked the cops who worked for him. Well, he liked Molly and Suit, at least. He liked the town. He felt at home. He was even beginning to like being himself, something that made at least one reader, me, ask, And why wouldn’t you? You’re young, strong, handsome, you’ve got a good job and you’re good at it, you live in one of the most beautiful places on the Eastern Seaboard, and very hot women, like the fiery redheaded lawyer crossing over from the Spenser novels Rita Fiore, throw themselves at you! What’s not to like?
Stone was beginning to become a younger Spenser, only without the wisecracks, Hawk, and the local color provided by the Boston background, which is to say, without the fun.
When Sunny Randle waltzed into Jesse’s life from Parker’s other detective series, her too obviously symbolic first name blazing, I gave up on the Jesse Stone series.
Parker’s novels, I mean. I’m in no hurry at all to give up watching Selleck’s series and I’m happy to note that Innocents Lost is not going to be the last one. There’s another movie coming in May. Benefit of the Doubt.
At sixty-seven---Sixty-seven? Magnum is pushing seventy? How is that possible?---Selleck is at least thirty years too old for the part. You would think. If you didn’t, like me, think Parker had made Stone too young. Although Selleck’s thickened up quite a bit since his Magnum days, he can still pull off playing, well, not young. He doesn’t play Stone as young, which is the point. Younger. Fifty-something, and that’s about right. At say fifty-five, Jesse can still handle the job, physically. What he can’t do is expect very much to come from it, no matter how well he handles it.
For a still young man in his mid-thirties, the job of chief of police of Paradise is a second chance. And he can hope for third and fourth chances if he screws up again. But for a man on the brink of old age, the job is a last chance.
That goes for him personally as well as professionally.
In Innocents Lost, Jesse begins an affair with a beautiful and sexy younger woman. But she’s no kid. She’s around forty, she knows the score, and she’s married. She has no plans to end the marriage, but even if she did, Jesse isn’t a guy she’d end it for. In fact, she makes it clear to him she’s with him because she knows there’s no possibility of their having a future together, mainly because she’s pretty sure Jesse himself hasn’t much of a future.
Parker’s younger Jesse has good reason to believe that if cleans up his act and shakes himself loose from his demons he can have a relatively happy future that might include true and lasting love and a family. He just has to make himself believe it.
But Selleck’s Jesse knows that while there might be hope the odds are against a man of his age---who, thanks to his drinking, is aging faster than other fiftysomethings---finding that kind of happiness. Even if there’s a possibility, he still has to make himself believe he deserves it. And here’s the thing. Selleck’s Jesse is old enough that he might have already found it but he threw it away. We’ve not seen hsi ex-wife Jen yet, she’s been just a voice on the phone in calls made mostly in the dead of night, which means she’s essentially a ghost. We don’t know how old she is. We don’t know how long she and Jesse were married. We suspect she is younger. Which opens up the possibility---the probability---that she was his second chance. There might be another ex-wife out there and children we haven’t heard about. If not, then very likely there’s someone with whom Jesse could have had a family, with whom he should by now sharing grandchildren, but he blew that too, and given that he’s a drunk, it’s likely that he hurt her in blowing it and if that missing family is there he hurt them too.
Selleck’s Stone has never said anything about it, but he sure seems to be carrying around an awful big load of guilt.
Then there’s the drinking. Both Jesses would like to give it up or at least get better control of it. But the older Jesse has to wonder if he has time and even if there’s really a point. Sobriety would be good for him all around, except that why bother if all’s he’s doing is exchanging the debilitations of drink for the debilitations of old age? Why would he want to be able to look at his life with clear eyes if all he’s going to see is his life coming to its end?
Neither Jesse has a death wish, but the TV Jesse doesn’t have any good reason to go on living. In the novels Jesse drinks---or drank---to forget his problems. In the TV series, he might be drinking to end them.
At the opening of Innocents Lost, we learn that Jesse has taken up jogging---he hates jogging. He’s on a diet too. “I’m working on the new me,” he tells people, but Selleck deadpans it and he lets his eyes sneak away to their corners. The idea of a new Jesse is a joke only he finds funny.
What this amounts to is that Parker’s Jesse is a man trying to climb out of hole he’s dug for himself while Selleck’s is a man at the end of his rope.
Selleck doesn’t overplay it but he’s clearly carrying the weight. And there’s another thing. He carries Magnum around with him too. He doesn’t have to do anything to evoke him. We just can’t help remembering. (Parker named the town Paradise ironically, of course, although the irony isn’t that it’s really a hell but that it’s Jesse’s Purgatory, the place where his past sins must be burnt and purged away. But Magnum fans will remember that Magnum, who narrated the shows, often opened episodes by referring to Hawaii as Paradise.) Selleck couldn’t have played Stone when he was in his thirties, and not just because Parker hadn’t written Jesse into existence yet. He was too golden and glowing. And he was too clearly happy and at ease within himself. (He would have made a pretty good Spenser, if Robert Urich wasn’t around making a very good one.) You look at Selleck and you can’t help seeing those roguishly bouncing eyebrows.
Then you look at not Selleck but Selleck's Jesse and start thinking that Stone may once have been like Magnum and you instinctively want to reject the thought. This can’t be where a Magnum ends up!
But of course it can be. It often is. A golden youth doesn’t guarantee a happy old age. What happens in between decides it, and somewhere in between Jesse Stone ruined himself and now he can’t forgive himself for that.
There’s not a lot of self-pity in Selleck’s Jesse but not a lot of self-loathing either. What there is is a cold, hard, unceasing and unforgiving self-judgment. We see him hauling himself before the court of his own conscience to be tried and tried again with the verdict always coming back Guilty as charged!
I’m probably making the series sound like much more of downer than it is. Actually, there’s a lot of fun it and a good deal of humor. And the episodes are smartly directed and beautifully photographed. The writing’s good and the supporting cast is excellent, although I miss Viola Davis as Officer Molly Crane. I don’t know why she left the series, but I hear she’s found other work.
Still, there’s a sadness at the heart of the series. Which I happen to think is what makes the shows compelling.
Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost and all but one of the other Jesse Stone mystery movies are available to watch instantly at Amazon. The missing one is Stone Cold. Note that it’s the only one without “Jesse Stone” in its title. It was the first one made but it falls second in the series’ ongoing storyline. All the movies including Stone Cold are on DVD.
And of course you can find Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone novels at Amazon too.
Spenser is waiting for you at my aStore.