Raleigh, N.C. — My favorite drink is a big ice cold glass of water, one you can chug down in a single gulp.
Almost all of Robert B. Parker’s novels read just like that - a refreshing ice cold drink on a hot summer’s day.
And then there’s "Double Play," which isn’t what you’d call heavy, but a read that goes down more like a couple shots of gin over ice. It’s one you’ll want to read a bit slower and certainly one to sip and savor.
As much as I enjoy Parker’s Spenser, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels, this one comes at us out of right-field (or at least the right side of the infield) and with a wonderful premise.
One doesn’t have to be a baseball wonk to know that Jackie Robinson came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, broke the color barrier and, in doing so, helped not only integrate major league baseball but also stole the first base for America’s integration.
You didn’t have to see him play (which I did in Ebbets Field in ’56) or interview the man who threw him the very first pitch (Johnny Sain), which I have, to know the back story.
Robinson played for years with not only his dignity but his life on the line. There were death threats in almost every ballpark he played in during those early years.
So here comes Parker with "Double Play."
What if a really tough WWII war hero, Joseph Burke, a man who is scarred physically and emotionally from Guadalcanal, is hired by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers General Manager, the man who handpicked Jackie to integrate the game, to be Jackie’s body guard and travel with him and the Dodgers?
And what if Burke comes to this job with people who ultimately not only want to kill Robinson but who also want to take Burke down along with him?
These two men are as hard as one of Robinson’s slides into second base to break up a Double Play. And it’s a damned good thing they are, because, together, they face some really scary characters - crime bosses and hired killers. To top this off, there are two love stories playing in the background - Robinson and his wife Rachel and Burke and Lauren, the daughter of a mob boss. Lauren is the beautiful girl Burke once body-guarded (in more ways than one) - a wild, sexy alcoholic and a downright dysfunctional ride.
So plenty of action framed here by Parker (responsibility, retribution, heroics) with pitch perfect nostalgia and attention to detail - the game and Dodgers team of the late 40s and early 50s.
You’ll walk though the Ebbets Field rotunda, hear Red Barber’s southern drawl from the radio booth, see Hilda, the Bums, observe the Abe Stark Hit This Sign and Win a Suit on the Ebbets outfield wall, join the card games on the long train rides from city to city and watch the players check out women in the stands during batting practice.
Branch Rickey, a brilliant cigar chomping businessman, comes to life in conversation and through his actions. Parker ties this unlikely story together with box scores from actual games, and, in a few separate chapters, drops in the voice of a young Dodger fan just to do what good writers do - set the time and place in a way that brings history, baseball and Brooklyn to life
But here’s what makes this one a slow summer drink of a read - maybe that gin and tonic as opposed to the glass of ice water we’ve come to expect from Parker. As readers we get inside the characters’ heads more than we might in one of his signature reads - like the the Spenser, Randall or Stone novels.
We see that Jackie Robinson is one bright, educated, brave, tough customer, a man’s man who doesn’t take crap (anymore than he has to) from anyone, including his bodyguard. Burke is, again, a scar of WWII, a man who doesn’t, no - can’t - care about living, love, dying, danger or where his bravado might take him.
Until Lauren and Robinson and their actions (and his) take him there!
Bob Cairns runs the site "Page Turners from the Past," a website devoted to bringing readers reviews of older books that deserve a good dusting off! His reviews are featured once a month on WRAL.com.