Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Double Play by Robert B. Parker - Book Review

Robert B. Parker (this link is to a very comprehensive web site. Readers interested in learning more about Parker should spend some time there.) is the author of 36 Spenser novels, as well as two other detective series and several westerns. My best count is that he’s written 64 books. Spenser, his most consistent and popular character has been a continuing presence in detective fiction for 35 years. Parker, who has a Ph.D. from Boston University in English, where he wrote an analysis of crime fiction of the thirties, and worked as an English professor at Northeastern University before leaving academia to write full time. The Spenser character is one of those strong but sensitive tough guys who owe much to the writing of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald as well as the literary work of Earnest Hemmingway, with particular reference to the code of honor observed by his strong characters. Central to the Spenser character are his relationships to his lover Susan, a psychoanalyst, and his black friend, Hawk, another man of action who functions on the fringes of society. The novels, although judged uneven by many critics, have been consistently entertaining to me.

In Double Play, Parker takes on different content, but never strays very far from his characteristic style and pace, although the structure of this work is thought provoking. The focus of this novel is Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues. For those of you too young to remember, Robinson was the first black player in major league baseball. The story has several layers in it which provide context and texture to this story. Joseph Burke returns from World War II suffering from grievous physical injuries to be dealt the still more devastating emotional blow of finding, when he recovers enough to leave the hospital, that his wife has left him. Burke drifts through life, eventually becoming the cold and emotionless body guard for a beautiful but wayward New York daughter of a gangster. Soon, after some exciting and interesting gun play, Burke is hired by Branch Rickey to guard Robinson during his first year in the bigs.

There’s a parallel, and apparently autobiographical, series of vignettes following the childhood and adolescence of a boy named Bobby who describes his childhood during the war and subsequent love affair with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bobby’s brief memoir, used as inter-chapter inserts, serve to contextualize the darker events surrounding Robinson’s dangerous entry into baseball and Burke’s cold and seemingly heartless work as a bodyguard.

As the relationship between Burke and Robinson develops, we hear echoes of the snappy dialogue Parker employs between his ace detective Spenser and Hawk, the dangerous and mysterious man who often serves as Spencer’s friend and backup. Parker claims, in an interview on his web site, to write ten pages a day, never to revise or rewrite. His spare, minimalist prose suggests to me that this claim is untrue; his prodigious output suggests that he’s not fabricating much. Nevertheless, so much is left unsaid in a Parker novel that it suggests much more writing has been done and then carefully, even ruthlessly pared to the bone.

Double Play by Robert B. Parker is an entertaining and thought provoking read that requires only a few hours time. Once I picked this book up, I had to keep reading. Parker’s spare, clean prose goes quickly and enjoyably. The book is available to your local independent bookstore, at the chains, and on line. It is a couple of years old, so should be remaindered at lots of stores. Pick it up next time you see it.