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Parker's second sleuth is first-rate

Stone Cold
By Robert B. Parker
Putnam, 323 pp., $24.95

There is trouble in Paradise, again, and that's what Jesse Stone is there for. Jesse is Robert B. Parker's second sleuth, developed after writing more than two dozen novels about the Boston shamus Spenser; Jesse is a kind of vacation for Parker, and also an alter-ego for Spenser, much less sure of himself. A recovering alcoholic, Jesse is chief of police in Paradise, a community on Boston's North Shore that doesn't seem too distant from Marblehead. "Stone Cold" presents his fourth adventure.

A man's body has appeared on the beach, two bullet holes in his heart. Evidence is lacking; the victim seems to be guilty of nothing worse than bad taste. In his condo, Jesse finds "a gumball machine, a model of the original Thunderbird, a big illuminated globe, and some sort of glass slab filled with water through which bubbles rose endlessly. The world according to Sharper Image."

Soon there is another victim -- a woman, this time, shot in the parking lot of the Paradise Mall as she started to unload her groceries from her shopping cart. Two bullets in the chest. Jesse notices that the modus operandi is the same; forensics confirms that the slugs came from the same guns. He is dealing with serial killers.

And that's not the only problem on his plate. A local high school girl has been raped; neither she nor her parents know what to do. Fortunately Jesse does. In other dimensions of his life, Jesse doesn't know what to do, and that's what makes him so interesting. Things aren't going too well with the ex-wife, Jenn, for whom Jesse is carrying a blazing torch. The bottle offers the allurement of escape. So does Rita Fiore, a lawyer from Boston who on more than one occasion has confronted Spenser with a moral choice; she offers Jesse the same choice.

Parker is in roaring good form in this one. He writes about Jesse in the third person rather than from Spenser's first-person point of view, and this gives him some options he doesn't have in the Spenser novels. He introduces the serial killers as early as page one, and we follow their plans as they tilt against Jesse. They are smart and they don't make mistakes. Well, they do; they assume that they are smarter than he.

So there's actually some suspense in "Stone Cold" and it isn't just the suspense of stalking killers who are simultaneously stalking you. There's also the suspense about whether Jesse is going to make it through the day; he's on the edge all the time, trying to hold it together. And the gyroscope of his code of behavior isn't as steady as Spenser's -- he doesn't always make the right choices, and Jenn is not the rock that Spenser's insufferable Susan is. Jesse resists oppressors because he is full of compassion for victims. He knows from inside what it's like to be a victim; he's learning that his principal oppressor is himself. He's trying to break out of the vicious circle. One of his weapons is therapy, and a sense of humor about himself -- the therapy is necessary, but it can't do the whole job, and the jargon is good for some comedy.

One of the killers makes a literary reference, somewhat less elegantly than Spenser usually does. He quotes "some old-time guy called the Venerable Bede . . . There's this big banquet hall and it's brightly lit and there's a big warm fire. Outside it's cold and dark. But inside everybody's eating and drinking and having a hell of a time. A sparrow flies into one end of the hall, out of the cold darkness, and flies through the bright warm hall and out the other end into the cold darkness again . . . So human life is like the flight of the sparrow."

Parker knows the brightly lit banquet hall of life and he enjoys it to the full; he has a hell of a time too. Like Jesse Stone, he also knows what the sparrow learns and the revelers ignore; it's cold and dark outside. That knowledge has schooled his heart, and made him something more than the jester at the fireside.

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