by Robert B. Parker. Putnam, 2004.
Robert B. Parker’s heroes epitomize the strong silent types. Like the cowboys of old, they are taciturn, unfailingly loyal and determined to pursue the causes of right in the face of superior numbers or disadvantageous circumstances.
Joseph Burke is the latest in this mold.
Parker, known primarily for his Spenser novels, takes a stab (no pun intended) at the noir and historical fiction genres in Double Play.
Burke, a wounded WWII veteran, has little to live for. His wife left him after his return to the States. His recovery is slow and painful, though he doesn’t complain. This makes him the perfect guy for a series of dubious opportunities where a cheery or promising outcome isn’t necessary.
After a succession of jobs calling for a degree of physical prowess combined with a generous helping of discretion, Burke winds up as bodyguard for a very important person: Jackie Robinson, the African-American who broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
One of the codicils to which Robinson had to agree in his first two years in the big leagues was to turn the other cheek in the face of beanballs, threats, spikings by opponents and the cold shoulders of some of his own teammates. To retaliate, the Dodgers worried, would give ammunition to those who supported the notion that blacks weren’t ready to play in the majors.
While life on the field was no picnic, at least Robinson was able to channel his energies through baseball. His teammates grew to respect and protect him. It was during those long hours after the final out that Burke’s special skills are needed.
There aren’t a lot of actual baseball aspects to the book, but Parker does a credible job of relating the omnipresent tension Robinson faced, painting a very sympathetic picture and making Burke’s course clear.
Double Play mixes many clichés from noir classics such as The Big Sleep — the spoiled rich girl who invariably falls for the hero; the bad-guy competition who shares a mutual, if begrudging, admiration with Burke; the wealthy and cowardly villain who has others do his dirty work, etc. Throw in the race card and you now have rival gangs competing for turf.
Mixed in with the narrative are “pentimenti,” which serve as back story/flashback, explaining how Burke came to his current situation. Parker also slips in “Bobby” chapters without any explanation at all. Are these his own memories as a young boy, serving as a rationale for writing this novel? Are they those of a fictional character? Either way, they might strike some as intrusive and unnecessary.
Parker’s latest is another example of his courage to try new things. In addition to the Spenser books, he created two other series: Sunny Randall, featuring a female detective, and Jesse Stone, a small town police chief. Further reaching outside his comfort zone, he wrote Gunman’s Rhapsody, a western novel featuring Wyatt Earp, and took it upon himself to write “sequels” to some of Raymond Chandler’s novels.
While Parker’s “Spenser” books are much more detail-oriented (for some reason, he has a mania for describing the most minute details of the characters’ food preparation and clothing), Double Play is stark by comparison, mirroring the bleakness characteristic of this genre.
[Note: This review originally appeared on Bookreporter.com.]