The first Robert B. Parker novel that I ever read was MORTAL STAKES, the third of the Spenser books. The book concerned, along with many other things, professional baseball, and even at the early point in the series Parker's and Spenser's wit was razor-sharp. References were made in those early books to Spenser's service in World War II, something that, uh, isn't referenced much anymore, given that Spenser would be in his early 80s by now and probably not in any shape to be pimpslapping the occasional villainous cad he might encounter. I kept coming back to Spenser's forgotten military service, however, as I read DOUBLE PLAY.
DOUBLE PLAY is not in the Spenser continuum, nor in the worlds of Randall or Stone. It is set in 1947, an era to which Parker is no literary stranger, due to his fine novels POODLE SPRINGS and PERCHANCE TO DREAM. DOUBLE PLAY is in its fashion a historical novel. As Parker so aptly puts it in a short note at the commencement of the book, DOUBLE PLAY is a work of fiction about a real man. The man in question is Jackie Robinson, the first black American to play in what has come to be known as Major League Baseball. That feat was perhaps one of the most significant occurrences of the 20th century with respect to the Civil Rights movement, arguably equaled by the unabashed appeal of Louis Armstrong to white audiences. DOUBLE PLAY, however, is told from the perspective of Joseph Burke, a troubled man whose path makes an unlikely crossing with Robinson's on the eve of the latter's shattering of the color barrier in professional sports.
Burke is a World War II veteran, a marine who survived, though barely, the battle of Guadalcanal. Returning home to an empty house and life, Burke, like Spenser before him, becomes a professional boxer but soon finds that he is almost good, in a sport where such a level of competency is simply not good enough. After being employed for a short time as a "collection agent" for an unsavory character, Burke is hired as a bodyguard by Julius Roach for his daughter Lauren, who, in the words of Roach, needs "looking after." This indeed is an understatement. Lauren is trouble, yet Burke is attracted to something within Lauren, and the two begin an unlikely but perhaps inevitable relationship.
When Burke's employment, and his relationship with Lauren, is terminated, Burke is passed off to a man named Branch Rickey. Rickey is on the verge of presenting Jackie Robinson to the world as the first black professional baseball player. Robinson has been receiving death threats on an almost daily basis; Rickey feels that Robinson needs protection, as well as a guardian angel, as it were, to keep him out of trouble. The message, though implied, is clear: in order for Robinson to succeed, he does not need to be as good as his white counterparts. He needs to be better, on and off the field.
Burke and Robinson accordingly begin a relationship that is, if anything, even more unlikely than Burke's star-crossed relationship with Lauren. The men have some initial difficulty --- white cab drivers won't pick them up because of Robinson and black cabdrivers won't pick them up because of Spenser, for example --- but the men soon develop a relationship based on mutual respect and the similarity of their circumstances. They are both fish out of water, doing the best that they can. It isn't long before they both make some people extremely angry. Burke foils one assassination attempt on Robinson's life, only to disc