Robert B. Parker is perhaps the only living writer who can lay claim to having collaborated with Raymond Chandler, the guy who turned detective fiction into high art. Okay, Parker didn't actually sit down and write with the great man. He did, however, turn an unfinished Chandler manuscript into the 1989 novel ''Poodle Springs,'' and did a creditable job of it. How cool is that?
Parker is, of course, best known for his 30-odd books about the Boston-based PI Spenser (which spawned the ''Spenser: For Hire'' TV series). A friend of mine calls the Spenser novels ''Chandler Lite,'' and that just about nails it. They're mostly enjoyable (take one along next time you've got a long flight), but even some fans admit the series started to feel a tad formulaic about 10 or 15 books ago. (Hey, who's to say the same fate wouldn't have overtaken the Philip Marlowe books if Chandler had been more prolific?)
Parker's latest tome, Double Play, is a welcome attempt to break the mold. Set in 1947, it's a hard-boiled semihistorical novel that revolves around Joseph Burke, a white World War II vet tapped to serve as the bodyguard of real-life sports titan Jackie Robinson, the man who integrated major-league baseball when he was hired to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Burke, who shut down emotionally after being abandoned by his wife while in a hospital recovering from machine gun wounds, is a quintessential tough guy, the sort who can fatally shoot a man without blinking and then go out for a steak dinner and a few drinks. Of course, as we find out, underneath that seemingly unfeeling exterior a heart of gold lies dormant, just waiting for the right girl to come along and show him what love means. (That the woman who accomplishes this is a spoiled rich brat addicted to booze and masochism, and not a porcelain waif, is a nice twist.)
''Double Play'' is, in some ways, a typically Parkeresque effort, filled with the writer's trademark three-and four-page chapters, nine-word paragraphs, and ultra-terse dialogue. Where it gets really engrossing, though, is in those scenes that track the evolution of Burke and Robinson's relationship. When Burke accepts the assignment, the ''Negro'' ballplayer represents just another means to a paycheck. But as they hang out, traveling, eating, and living together in black hotels, Burke observes firsthand the appalling racism -- including death threats and assassination attempts -- to which Robinson is subjected on a day-to-day basis, and he begins to develop a social conscience.
Robinson is obviously a very personal icon to Parker, and much of the book can be seen as an extended love letter to him. The narrative is interspersed with the recollections of a character (rather significantly named Bobby) who vividly recollects his '40s boyhood years spent dreaming about baseball and romance (not necessarily in that order), and who just adores Jackie Robinson. But don't assume Parker's depiction of his hero is etched in sappy sentimentality; his pared-down style is well suited to depicting Robinson as a resiliently clearheaded, very human guy just trying to get by in the world while simultaneously making civil rights history. The resulting novel represents a refreshing change of pace especially recommended to anyone who chose to pass on the last Spenser caper.