SHOTGUN BLAST FROM THE PAST : ROBERT B. PARKER'S DOUBLE PLAY
With opening day coming, I decided to read a book that sat on my shelf too long. Double Play is a Robert B. Parker standalone that looks at Jackie Robinson's first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers that broke the color barrier in the game in 1947 .I expected it to to deal with race as well as baseball. I didn't expect it to use those ideas to meditate on something deeper.
Parker uses a simple set up for this historical crime novel. Because of the controversy it will cause, Dodgers manager Branch Rickey finds a body guard for Robinson. His connections give him Joseph Burke, a World War Two vet who has done his share of his killing with ties to the underworld. Not only is he to protect Robinson from racists, he is to stop Robinson from lashing out if he loses his temper with them.
When dining in a Harlem restaurant, Jackie turns down the drinks of its gangster owner, Mr. Paglia. Insulted the mobster threatens Burke and him. The two escape the situation with help of the mostly black patrons, but Paglia teams up with a hood who has a score to settle with Burke to put a bigger target on Robinson.
Parker avoids making Burke the typical white racist who learns the error of his hate as the stereotypical take on a story like this would run. Burke doesn't care about anything enough to hate. To survive the war, the streets, and a divorce, he has shut down emotionally.
Parker tracks his relationship with Robinson over the season. He gets an education on Jackie's life. Robinson turned down Paglia's drink because he doesn't want to be seen drinking in public. He also shares with Burke he does the same with fried chicken to avoid perpetuating the stereotype. Burle gets a taste of his life during an away game when neither hotels in the black or white side of town will allow them a room. Parker depicts robinson's courage and what he faces in a low volume, understated tone that reverberates. Jackie describes what he's going through as simply an amplified version of his life before join The Dodgers.
Parker's style works beautifully for these books.His famed back and forth dialogue expresses the relationship between the two men, growing sharper as they reach and trust and understanding with one another with Burke finding personal courage by interacting with Robinson's societal one. At times the craftsmanship is poetic. In a passage where Cash, a gunman who ends up playing an important art in the story, gets into verbal confrontation with Burke at Ebbets Field, Parker weaves in a the game Robinson is playing to create narrative tension as well as setting. He also uses chapters with a young boy whose importance I didn't get until nearly the end.
Parker leans hard into his decades of developed skill to to tell one of his most personal stories. He uses the professional code of his Spenser character to build the relationship of two very different professional men. Double Play uses well executed fiction to find the emotional truths in our history.