Longtime MNB readers know that I have a strong affection for the work of mystery writer Robert B. Parker. I met him several times, interviewed him once (in 1986, over beers in the bar of the original Ritz Carlton in Boston, one of the cooler things I've done in my career), and I got to know his widow, Joan, after he passed away in 2010.
Several years ago, fueled no doubt by the success that they had using new authors to write novels based on characters created by Parker - Ace Atkins did a superb job with 10 Spenser novels, while several authors had mixed creative results continuing the Jesse Stone series - the publisher and Parker estate decided to revive Sunny Randall, a female private eye based in Boston who was sort of Spenser-adjacent.
As much as I've always loved Parker's work, I never thought that Sunny was his best creation. She originally was conceived when a movie studio wanted to do a series of detective films starring Helen Hunt; the movies never happened but Parker, who never let any work go to waste, decided to launch a third series of detective novels. They were interesting, but for me, unpersuasive - he was using the same first person narrative that he employed for Spenser, and it seemed too close for comfort. Not quite original and not quite credible.
When they decided to relaunch the series, they hired sportswriter Mike Lupica to take it over. Lupica knew Parker and already was writing the Jesse stone series (he was the third writer to do so), and so he knew the Parker-verse and apparently was ready and willing.
At the time, however, I remember thinking that they'd missed an opportunity - that they could've hired a female writer who could've brought a higher level of authenticity to the character.
Well, now they've done it.
Atkins has retired from the Parker-verse, and for the foreseeable future the Spenser novels will be penned by Lupica. (I always thought that his Sunny Randall sort of sounded like Spenser, anyway.) And Alison Gaylin, a writer with whom I was unfamiliar until now, has taken over the Sunny Randall series.
Her first effort, "Bad Influence," is a breath of fresh air. Sunny still is recognizably Sunny, but there is something far more authentic about her now. Maybe it is how savvy she is about things like social media and influences (each of which are major plot points), and maybe it is just that when Sunny narrates in the first person, it actually sounds like someone other than Spenser or Jesse Stone - a unique character who deserves her own voice.
"Bad Influence" is a fun read. The characters are sharply and quickly drawn, the trademark Parker banter and sardonic wit is all there, the plot moves along at a nice pace, and I had no idea how it was going to turn out until the end. (Which is pretty good, because I read a lot of these things and I hate it when I've figured out in Chapter 3 something that the protagonist only is going to deduce in Chapter 37.)
Yesterday's FaceTime focused on a customer service initiative we encountered when we went to see "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" on Broadway this week. I did want to follow that up to talk a little bit about the play.
I don't really want to review it - the limited run at the James Earl Jones Theatre ends on July 2, and unless you live in the New York metro area, it is unlikely you are going to see it. And if I were doing an extended review, I'd say that it is a very interesting production of a play, originally staged in 1964, that is in need of a new draft or two that it never could get - playwright Lorraine Hansberry was gravely ill with pancreatic cancer during the original previews and run, and died immediately after it closed.
Perhaps because she knew it might be her last show, "Sign" is overstuffed with plot and text - at any given moment it is is about anti-semitism, racism, sexism, political corruption, and a critique of self-conscious liberalism as practiced by white hipsters and activists living in New York City. There's a lot of absorb, and most of it is effectively sold, in the first act at least, by Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan as the play's protagonists. The second act, not so much - it sort of goes off the rails a bit, largely through what strikes me as an ambition to do more, to strike big themes, to make big statements.
All that said, I really enjoyed "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," because it is very much a period piece, reflective of a kind of writing that strikes me as being of the time it originally was staged. I like ambition in art - even when it doesn't completely work, it provokes thought and emotion. That's no small achievement.
The other thing that "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" made me realize is how wrongheaded current moves to sanitize and make politically correct certain works of literature are. Hansberry's play uses language and portrays attitudes that are abhorrent to a 2023 mindset, but the point is that the play takes place in the early sixties. We've come a long way since then (though not as far as one would think - just look at the rise in antisemitic incidents in this country), and that becomes apparent when we see these people act and listen to them talk. You can only measure how far you've gone if you know where you started, and I thought "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" did an excellent job in illustrating that.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.