The Bookshelf Review: Mortal Stakes

February 6, 2014 Robert B. Parker, 1975, Houghton Mifflin.

I loved the TV series Spenser for Hire, based on Parker’s crime novels. Then I started reading the books and I became addicted. But not in the way you’re addicted to delicious potato chips or similar things that start out as enjoyable until one day you discover you’re 20 pounds heavier. No, this was more of “this stuff is mediocre, but I still can’t stop.” I felt I had to read them all, regardless of the fact that they were all pretty similar. You have your private eye, fine. But this one is literate as well as a tough guy.

Parker loves to describe

  • workouts and athletic prowess, as in “How much do you bench?”
  • food, as in what Spenser eats and drinks, both in his own kitchen and in restaurants great and small
  • clothes, as in what everyone is wearing

The only thing Spenser doesn’t describe in detail is his love life; guess he’s too much of a gentleman.

But he’s a wiseacre. He mouths off to law enforcement and bad guys alike (there always seems to be a semi-sophisticated nemesis and a dumb but powerfully-built lackey). Pretty formulaic.

Nevertheless, when I learned about this baseball-themed novel from a Facebook group, I had to, had to, read it. I wasn’t disappointed. It lived up to/down to expectations.

The story is set in the mid-1970s, so it was kind of like reading an episode of Starsky and Hutch (the original TV show, not the crappy feature film). The clothes, the cars, the grit of the city — Boston being Spenser’s base — a nice trip down memory lane.

Mortal Stakes involves a talented veteran pitcher (potential Hall of Famer) on the Red Sox, whom someone in the front office thinks is “somewhat off,” although he can’t put his finger on it. Enter our hero who goes undercover as a writer(!) working on a book about the national pastime. This gives him total access to the team, where he can ask his questions without raising too much suspicion.

He eventually meets the pitcher, who invites Spenser home to meet the family. Can you imagine that happening in real life? Eventually, the detective susses out a terrible secret that leads to blackmail that leads to the pitcher’s questionable actions.

No spoilers here. The book weighs in at about 175 pages in its original hardcover release. I’d be interested to hear the reaction of someone who hasn’t read any of the Spensers before, whether it increases or decreases the story’s “quality.”

Parker published another baseball novel — Double Play, about a plot to kill Jackie Robinson — in the early 2000s, but it was not part of the larger Spenser oeuvre.


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