- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004


By Robert B. Parker

Putnam, $24.95, 288 pages


I have this theory that if Jane Austen were alive today she’d be writing crime fiction — and selling lots of books. Crime fiction is our current novel of manners, and perhaps the best vehicle for treating modern themes and issues.

“Double Play” is an example of intelligent crime fiction. It’s yet another successful variation on Robert B. Parker’s long-running theme, of smart and honorable tough guys who stick to their personal codes and make it through this world with a little help from friendship and love.

A simple enough theme — the cowboy way brought to the big city, with Indians and rustlers replaced by gangsters — but endlessly fascinating in Mr. Parker’s hands (though it can be tedious beyond words in the hands of many of his less talented imitators).

If Mr. Parker couldn’t make this material fresh and entertaining time and again, his publishers wouldn’t have been able to sell millions of copies of his 31 novels featuring the tough but literate Boston P.I., Spenser (no first name is ever given), or to put up large numbers for Mr. Parker’s more recent series creations, woman P.I. Sunny Randall and small-town police chief Jesse Stone. Spenser alone (the consensus is he’s the best P.I. since Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, maybe the best period) would be enough to put Mr. Parker into the Crime Writers Hall of Fame.

“Double Play” is not a Spenser novel. It’s a stand-alone featuring Joseph Burke, a physically and emotionally wounded ex-Marine hired by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to be bodyguard to Jackie Robinson during Robinson’s tumultuous rookie season in 1947.

While the novel centers around Robinson’s dramatic breaking of what we used to call “the color line” in major-league baseball, it’s not a baseball procedural (though doubtless Mr. Parker could write a good baseball procedural; old Spenser hands know the author loves baseball and is very savvy about the game). There’s very little actual baseball in the book, apart from some brief descriptions of games going on as backdrop to the real action of the novel (which includes names familiar to baseball fans of a certain age, like Peewee Reese, who was a big help to Robinson, and Eddie Stanky, Dixie Walker and Bobby Bragan, who weren’t). The heart of the novel is Burke’s recovery and redemption, not Robinson’s trial, which was dramatic, severe, and is already well-known.

Sadly, the Spenser-Randall-Stone humor shows up infrequently in “Double Play.” Burke is Mr. Parker’s darkest character, and there are some almost noir elements early in the novel. But the gloom doesn’t last for the duration.

World War II saves young Burke from a bad family situation. But the Marines send him to an even worse place — Guadalcanal — where he gets stitched by a Japanese machine gun. His stateside recovery in military hospitals is slow and painful. He’s finally discharged, physically diminished and emotionally spent.

The bad news isn’t over for ex-Pfc. Burke. His wife — whom he married on the fly after a quick, on-leave romance (more of a quick slap and tickle than a romance) before shipping out — has left him for a paratrooper. He learns this from a note she leaves on the coffee table that he finds when he gets home from the hospital (charming).

Sick, humiliated and abandoned, Burke begins a physical recovery. With the help of uncounted numbers of pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and miles run, he is soon physically strong again, but is still an emotional vacuum. He winds up boxing for dollars, where he makes some mob connections.

Burke is a good boxer (slugger really), but not good enough to make it to the top of a really tough trade (yes, there are echoes of Spenser here). He’s big and strong and fearless, so he does a bit of leg breaking (excuse me, debt collecting) for various low-level mobsters. Then he winds up getting the bodyguard gig with Robinson and the Dodgers.

It’s here that the story really begins. Before we reach the end we are treated to a sometimes nostalgic but mostly unsentimental look at postwar America. A place that surely was less complicated and more innocent in some ways — but with various snakes in the garden. One of them is the racism that Robinson has to battle with Burke’s help.

Though Mr. Parker shows us the dangers and indignities, large and small, that black Americans had to deal with in 1947 (and, sadly, for years after), the book is happily free of sermonettes on racism. The characters deal with the problem — and any fool can see it’s bad and wrong — but they don’t preach to us about it. We see Robinson and Burke having difficulty finding restaurants they can both be served in. When hailing a cab in white areas of the city, it’s hard to get one to stop because of Robinson; in black areas of town, cabbies pass them up because of Burke. So they walk more than they had planned.

Then there’s the big stuff. The action in the novel revolves around several attempts on Robinson’s life. Mr. Parker says up front that these events are fiction, not history, though the real Robinson did receive real death threats. It’s not just crazed racists but various underworld thugs, white and black, with various agendas and vendettas who make life dangerous for Robinson and Burke.

We also get a somewhat unusual love story along the way to Burke’s reclamation, and a view of how small-time rackets in Brooklyn operated in the late 1940s — all rendered in the language of the time and with the daily concerns of 1947.

Like most of Mr. Parker’s work, “Double Play” is a quick read (I got it down in an afternoon). The book is 288 pages long, but with fairly large type and generous spacing. It’s not just the low word count, but a crisp and insistent story line that gets you to the finish in a hurry. The story never lags. Mr. Parker’s tight prose style makes Hemingway seem almost blabby by comparison. Henry James would get carsick reading a Spenser novel.

“Double Play” is not a memorable book, just a very readable one. A good idea well executed. It will probably help reinforce Mr. Parker’s reputation as one of the best crime fiction writers around. And give lots of readers a few hours of pleasure.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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