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BOOK REVIEW

A Robert B. Parker double play: 30th Spenser and historical novel

Bad Business, By Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 310 pp., $24.95

Double Play, By Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 288 pp., $24.95

Robert B. Parker, never lazy, has been exceptionally industrious lately, producing his 30th Spenser novel, "Bad Business," and following it up almost immediately with "Double Play," a historical novel that stands with his most personal work.

The novel by Sir Walter Scott that helped define the genre of historical fiction, "Waverley," was subtitled " 'Tis Sixty Years Since." The literate tough guy Spenser might well appreciate that Parker has almost arrived there with "Double Play." The year is 1947, and the historical figure that interests him is Jackie Robinson during the season in which he integrated major league baseball.

Parker surrounds Robinson with some of the people and controversies he was in fact surrounded with; we also see him through his interactions with a fictional character named Jeremiah Burke, a survivor of Guadalcanal, a burned-out case. His physical wounds have gradually healed; he has created his own mental scar tissue to protect himself from the psychological wounds. His wife has left him, and he cares about nothing. He becomes an enforcer in the underworld without becoming an underworld figure, and later a bodyguard to a spoiled heiress. Finally he is hired by the Brooklyn Dodgers to protect Robinson, who moves through an atmosphere of constant threat. Some of the threats emanate from people in Burke's past.

Parker twines four strands through his story. One is the achievements and character of the historical Robinson, who provides the moral center by which everything is judged. Some of the pages about Robinson make uncomfortable reading, because it is hardly possible to re-create the complacently racist attitudes of his time without causing offense; Parker may go too far with jocularity about watermelon and fried chicken. Then there is the back story of Burke, which is printed on a different, gray-tinted paper, followed by the salvation of Burke, who thinks he is saving Robinson. Finally there are the bittersweet memories of a figure completely outside the main story, named Bobby, who turns 16 during Robinson's first season and whose experiences and reflections, printed in italics, are clearly those of Parker himself. He and his friends confront racial attitudes by fantasizing about having sex with Lena Horne. "Whether Lena Horne would have wanted sex with any of us was never considered."

The plot may follow familiar Parker patterns, but there is some exciting gunplay at Ebbets Field, and some of the verbal showdowns are even more exciting; there's also a Parkeresque touch of redemptive romance. There's a lot of nostalgic period detail and a soundtrack of vintage songs and network radio programs -- the climax comes while William Bendix is living "The Life of Riley" on the air. Best of all there are lots of box scores and baseball games and the memory of the voice of Red Barber calling the play-by-play and reporting, "Robinson is very definitely brunette."

"Bad Business" takes place in the present: Spenser and Susan grab a bite in the Palm after a shopping spree at Neiman Marcus. Even after 30 books we are learning new things about Spenser. He hates eggplant, we discover, so he makes moussaka with zucchini, onions, and peppers, while drinking a martini made with orange vodka.

This adventure begins when a woman hires Spenser to discover whether her husband is running around on her. "She was good-looking in kind of an old-fashioned way. Sort of womanly. Before personal trainers, and StairMasters. . . . I imagined cheating on her," Spenser reflects. Soon he discovers he has entered a world of sleazy sexuality masquerading as "courtly love" in an environment of false, brand-name corporate values -- "money, power, country club, Porsche, Rolex, Mont Blanc pen."

Spenser's own values, of course, are never in question. He listens to Lee Wiley, reads Simon Schama's "Rembrandt's Eyes," and thinks in the language of the greater and lesser English poets. His life partner, Susan the shrink, calls him "sort of a big John Keats," and Spenser responds, "That would be me. `Silence and slow time.' "

The financial chicanery multiplies as the corpses pile up, but Spenser sorts it all out with the help of Susan and his friend Hawk. The old gumshoe has grown mellower and more politically correct with the years, so it's a disappointment that Parker reverts to an old ploy by making two of the bad guys gay in a book in which his best good-guy gay character, Lee Farrell, is named but makes no personal appearance. Still, it's to Parker's credit that good and evil are equal-opportunity conditions, and everyone has a chance and a choice.

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