Book Review: Robert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman
By Janet WebbSeptember 10, 2019
Robert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman is the 18th book in the Jesse Stone series, where the opioid epidemic has reached Paradise, and Police Chief Jesse Stone must rush to stop the devastation.
Why are we hooked on Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone character? The obvious: he’s taciturn, self-deprecating, achingly honest, wise, and witty—truly unforgettable. His backstory, his personal tragedies, and his struggles with alcohol (Can anyone make a glass of whiskey with jazz on the side more appealing than Parker?) keep us coming back.
Jesse has traded in “the first magic sip” of Johnny Walker Black Label for a “new nightly ritual,” meeting in the rooms “with fellow alcoholics who gave one another the strength they needed to stay sober.” Lastly, his down-to-earth guiding philosophy—as explained to the principal of Paradise High School—resonates with readers.
“I just try to do what’s right, Virginia, and leave the bigger questions to someone else. I’ve never been very good at figuring out the larger meaning of things, because I’m not sure there is one. I’ve dealt with too much pain and death to worry about it all now.”
Fictional Paradise, Massachusetts, is Everytown. It’s in Boston’s shadow, and the things that make it appealing to former Angeleno Stone (a smattering of ethnic restaurants, an increasingly diverse population) also attract undesirables, aka criminals. Police Chief Stone knows there is an inexorable connection between increased urbanity and crime. If there was ever a time in Paradise when neighbors left their doors unlocked, it’s long gone.
When Heather Mackey, an attractive, popular cheerleader, dies of a self-inflicted overdose, Stone knows her death is not a one-off. She most likely got the drugs from a classmate. Jesse unravels the events leading up to the cheerleader’s death, and from the outset, it’s an uncomfortable undertaking. In the 16th Jesse Stone story, The Hangman’s Sonnet, Stone explains his honed-in-LA process.
“When you want the guy at the top, you start at the bottom of the totem pole and work your way up” is what Jesse’s first detective partner had said to him. It was advice he heeded every time he’d built a case against someone up the food chain. And that was just what he meant to do now.
Who has secrets to hide? Who are the most vulnerable students? The ones who might be persuaded or coerced to peddle drugs to their classmates. When Jesse starts yanking the chain, it leads to an unignorable situation, as much as folks might like to simply bury the dead and move on. Addiction to opioids is an all-American epidemic.
Characters in Robert Parker land never disappear (unless they die). There’s always a need for a “connected” guy, especially someone as well connected as mobster Vinnie Morris. Morris is a Cassandra when it comes to crime and punishment in Paradise. When Stone makes the trek to Morris’s warehouse, they sit at the bar, club soda and lime for Jesse, a “double pour of expensive bourbon” for Vinnie.
“What can I do for you, Jesse?”
“Not so long ago, you warned me that Boston’s crime would creep into Paradise. You were right. It’s arrived.”
“I like being right, but you didn’t drive down here to pat me on the back for being an oracle.”
“Opioids and fentanyl-laced heroin,” Jesse said.
“That stuff’s all over the place. You know you got an opioid problem in this country when there’s a drug just for opioid constipation that a pharmaceutical company pays millions of bucks to advertise on TV.”
It’s personal when a 17-year-old ODs, and Jesse’s sure “the trail leads down here.” He wants Vinnie’s ear to the ground. Particularly, after Vinnie admits he was approached to “buy in.” Vinnie turned them down, but the offer alone is confirmation of the spread of opioid-fueled crime.
The Bitterest Pill details the inexorable connection between pain, pain relief, unscrupulous medical practitioners, and the bad guys who pull all the strings. Heather Mackey “had compressed vertebrae,” her doctor tells Stone. Dr. Nour shows Stone Heather’s MRI images and notes that “the general population all have injuries of some form or other,” although there’s a “range of symptoms with varying levels of distress.”
“Uh-huh. Fascinating, but what about Heather? Where did she land on the curve?”
“I’m afraid she wasn’t tolerating the pain very well with the Motrin. I prescribed Vicodin.”
“Is that usual, prescribing an opiate for teenagers?” Jesse asked, his tone calm and nonaccusatory.
“I prefer not to prescribe it for anyone, but my notes say she was in obvious distress and she was accompanied by her mother. See the notation here.”
Dr. Nour only prescribed a 15-day course of Vicodin, but unfortunately, she found a new supplier. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in the affluent world of Heather’s parents (her father is a town selectman). Even though her mother knew Heather was stealing from her, she didn’t confront her. Nor did Heather’s friends. Unlike the crack epidemic, a “drug of the poor,” opiate addiction cuts across the class lines, hence the pressure to shut it down.
What disgusted Jesse most of all about these drug scourges was the complicity of the people at the top of the food chain. The same people who had lit the fire, the big pharma companies, their stockholders, doctors, drugstores, were now screaming for everyone else to put it out. He knew the fire would claim many more victims before it would come under control. It was always the way.
Jesse Stone is fatalistic without losing hope and respect for the people he serves. Yes, he’s facing “a fast-spreading wildfire” but it’s not in his DNA to walk away from a disaster. Chief Stone and his department bring the firewall. The Bitterest Pill is a timely, unforgettable story. Thanks to Reed Farrel Coleman for continuing to bring Jesse Stone to life.