The Hangman’s Sonnet – Jesse Stone Thriller

The Hangman’s Sonnet by Reed Farrel Coleman (Robert B Parker series)

Jesse Stone is Chief of police in the Massachusetts coastal town of Paradise. It should be a relatively simple job but isn’t. Paradise lies close to Boston where crime is a way of life for too many. But in addition to imported troubles, Paradise always seems to have its fill of home-grown problems. The following contains spoilers.

After the brutal murder of his fiancée, Diana, by the vile Mr Peepers, Jesse has slid into full-blown alcoholism. It’s only the strenuous efforts of his friends and colleagues that has managed to keep him in his job. But that can’t last forever. His decline has been noticed by the Mayor’s office and she’s out for blood.

When an aged spinster, Maude Cain, is found dead, and a delivery man brutally beaten in her home, Stone must gather himself up and investigate the circumstances. It’s a strange one, as the woman appeared to have choked on her own vomit having been gagged by two intruders. Nothing obvious seems to be missing although the house has been ransacked. It’s the delivery man who eventually provides the info that helps Stone focus upon who the two intruders were. The hunt is on.

Meanwhile, back at the Mayor’s ranch, there is high excitement when it becomes known that a major birthday bash is being organised on luxurious Stiles Island, home to the wealthy of Paradise. The reclusive Terry Jester, a folk singer to rival Dylan, is being honoured on his seventy-fifth birthday with a fancy bash at a property on Stiles Island. His manager, Stan White, and publicist, Bella Lawton, are in charge of the arrangements and they expect Chief Stone to cooperate fully, as does the Mayor, a publicity hound herself. Security Chief for the island is Roger Bascom, a former military man turned private security. Stone doesn’t like him but has to set his personal opinions aside for the sake of a smooth event, as Bascom is taking responsibility for security for the many famous guests expected.

Jesse Stone, whilst nursing what is a perpetual hangover, is thrust into a world of celebrity fights and rumours. He knows that any slips will cost him his job but can’t seem to move on from the loss of Diana. His good friend, Tamara Elkin, medical examiner, is there for him, But Tamara has always been a little bit in love with Jesse and is still hoping that something might blossom between the two. They spend their time drinking as Tamara ironically tries to take him out of his downward spiral. But Jesse is lost in self-pity, and his selfishness is bringing his entire circle into trouble.

When one of the two intruders into Maude Cain’s home is found shot to death in a local nature preserve, Stone suspects that there is a great deal more to the home invasion than a simple break-in gone wrong. He discovers a card in the dead man’s pocket with numbers on it that appear to belong to a safety deposit box. Jesse wonders what the man was looking for, or found, in Maude’s home.

The search for the second intruder, Hump, goes on. Stone goes to Boston to meet with a member of the Italian mob, Vinnie Morris, a man he has had positive dealings with in the past. Between the Mafia and the private investigator, Spencer, Stone gets a heads up on Hump. Unfortunately, the criminal is on his last legs having been stabbed by a tweaker. Jesse gets what he needs though, as suspicion after suspicion about what has taken place begin to mount up.

During a visit to an old friend of his, Roscoe Niles, an aging DJ who has worked previously with both Stan White and Terry Jester, Stone is given the low-down on the reclusive singer. Niles claims not to be a fan of either man but does inform Jesse of a mythical stolen album reputed to be one of the greatest folk albums ever recorded. The Hangman’s Sonnet is one of those urban legends that has grown in power over the years, but Niles claims that it’s more than a myth. He also tells Jesse that, if found, it could be worth six million or more.

The chief suspect in the original theft of the master tape of The Hangman’s Sonnet was Evan Updike who, it transpires, was a nephew of Maude Cain. Stone realises that The Hangman’s Sonnet is at the back of the home invasion and the subsequent murder of one of the intruders. To strengthen this conviction, an original poem from the time of the recording is left with Roscoe Niles. Stone knows that whoever has the master tape of the album is trying to excite attention for it in the hope of driving up the sale price. He can only hope that they are going to slip up sooner rather than later.

The entire scheme comes to a head when Stan White is contacted by someone claiming to have the master tape and demanding six million dollars for it. They also want Chief Stone to be delivery man for the money drop. Stone agrees. It’s a mess. The money is collected OK, but the person who gets it is killed nearby and the money disappears. Luckily, Stone is a devious so-and-so who has his friend, Healy, watching and trailing the person responsible for the killing. All that remains are the arrests and final unravelling of the criminal master-plan that was not so masterful after all.

The Hangman’s Sonnet is the latest in the Jesse Stone trilogy, this time penned by Reed Farrel Coleman, someone who has undertaken the same job previously. He’s a decent writer but not in the style of Robert B Parker. Rebel Voice previously reviewed another Jesse Stone thriller, on that occasion written by Michael Brandman. Brandman does write like Parker and it’s this comparison that proved negative in the reading of Coleman’s offering.

Robert B Parker had a punchy style full of wit and sharp observation. Coleman’s approach was nothing like that. The story is too heavy with Stone’s wallowing through his own grief. The subject of alcohol is too much to the fore. It’s repeated ad nauseum. OK, we know Stone has a drinking problem but for Christ’s sake lay off telling us about it every second paragraph. Additionally, even with a drinking problem, bloodshot eyes and foul sweat, Stone has the most beautiful women lining up to ride him. Tamara Elkin, beautiful, feisty and intelligent. Bella Lawton, beautiful, feisty and intelligent, and Nita Thompson, beautiful, feisty and intelligent. What the hell is going on? What cologne is Stone wearing? It’s too implausible. There’s also the not-so-small detail of how Stone never seems to slur his words during his really bad hangovers. Rebel Voice wonders if Reed Farrel Coleman has ever been very drunk.

Although Jesse Stone is a great character and the setting of Paradise a wonderful place for a series, Coleman has managed to take the gloss off what should have been a fine story. Perhaps the one bright point is the meeting of Stone and Spencer, the two most famous and enduring of Parker’s creations. It a nice moment when two behemoths of modern fiction meet. Additionally, the plot is not predictable, we can give him that. But the pacing, the structure and the implausible characters demean the entire endeavour. After chasing down the bad guys, and solving the case, Rebel Voice got the feeling that the only thing missing was a large dog standing beside the culprit as he is telling us that he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids. It’s that kind of ending.

Sult scale rating: 5 out of 10. A great series but not a great episode in it. The author got it wrong on this occasion with his content. Jesse Stone managed to come across as a complete narcissistic asshole, not a good look and completely unnecessary. The idea for the story was good enough, the problem was the execution. If you want to get into the Jesse Stone series, then give this one a miss as it’s not representative of what is a great literary creation.

Here is another Jesse Stone review. This episode is by a different author:


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