To anyone who has suffered along with the Boston Red Sox through interminable seasons of high hopes and low accomplishments, the mere notion that a Sox pitcher might be induced by gamblers to throw games is a laugh: Red Sox pitchers have not needed anything but their own arms in order to enter the losing column.
Yet a pitcher suspected of deliberately losing Red Sox games, or at least shaving runs, is at the center of a new mystery novel. It's called Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker (Houghton Mifflin, $6.95) and, in spite of its dubious premise, it's a lot of fun.
If there are any doubts that Mortal Stakes is fiction, they are dispelled early on. The narrator, a private eye named Spenser (evidently he does not have a first name), is hired by a Red Sox official to investigate rumors that the team's star pitcher is on the take. "We don't score much." the official tells Spenser, explaining why the rumors could have substance. We're all pitching, defense and speed."
If those are the Red Sox, then Attila the Hun was a second-story man. In any event, Spenser is assigned to find out whether hanky-panky is being committed by Marty Rabb, a Jack Armstrongish pitcher of seemingly unstainable morals but occasionally stained performance.
Spenser sets about the task, representing himself as a writer doing a book about a season with the team. Soon he gets to know Rabb, and Rabb's wife, and the team's broadcaster, and the broadcaster's flunky, and...oh, what a tangled web Parker weaves! Before it is all over, we have been taken to a small town in Illinois; to a pimp's hangout in New York; to the offices of a gangster who masquerades as a funeral director across the river from Boston.
Since Spenser is the narrator, it's fairly obvious he lives to tell the tale. It's a diverting one, if not especially convincing. That Spenser should, as he does, eventually get religion of a sort does not seem much in character. The proliferation of private-eye clichés becomes something of a bore: the bourbon in the file cabinet, the two bimbos ready to do his will (why does he suddenly switch from one to the other?). And some of the prose is dreadful: "The flower beds were rich with petunias and redolent with pansies against a flourish of scarlet snapdragons."
That's all bothersome. But in a fashion the Sox win, and that's enough for me.