If your choice for fun in a hammock on a summer's day includes private-eye thrillers, here are four recommendations, with certain reservations. Actually there is only one genuine Eye among the four books, that being Spenser, the creation of Robert B. Parker in past novels and a recent TV series. The heroes in the other books are amateur sleuths.
The latest Spenser adventure is Taming A Sea-Horse (Delacorte Press, $15.95), and there is enough sports material in it to qualify for review here. Spenser, you see, is a Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox fan and is himself a former heavyweight boxer. There is a vivid six-page description of a bare-knuckle brawl that establishes Spenser as "the toughest guy in Lindell, Maine." Parker is the most relaxed practitioner of the private-eye genre today; he writes the way DiMaggio played the outfield. All the hard things in Sea-Horse—dialogue, pace and humor—come gracefully and seemingly without effort, as Spenser and his co-hero Hawk unravel a murder and rescue a wayward young woman from a life of white slavery. When you finish this one, go back to the 12 Spensers before it.
Another familiar name on the list is Dick Francis, ex-jockey and master of the British horse-racing scene. His newest is Break In (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $17.95), which takes you back to the quality of the early, superb thrillers Francis began turning out in the '60s and includes some gripping accounts of jump races in the fascinating detail that only he has ever managed. Break In's reluctant hero, who would much rather race than sleuth, finds himself obliged by his own sense of duty to confront corruption in the sport's establishment, the peerage and the press, and he succeeds without changing from the believable character we met on page 1. For some time now, Francis has included Americans in key roles in his books. Here a female TV news editor for a U.S. network is the protagonist's friend, and, for the most part, Francis makes her believable. But he slips occasionally in her casual dialogue, as when she describes a horse in an approaching race as "He's hot favorite" or a particularly well-dressed woman as "...looking a knockout, as usual." Add to the fun by noting the number of times she sounds less Yank than Oxonian.
The third entry is Dead Air, by Mike Lupica (Villard Books, $15.95). Lupica is a hip, abrasive sports columnist for the New York Daily News, and the publisher has lined up colleagues of Lupica's—most notably Howard Cosell and Dan Jenkins—to testify on the book's jacket that what's inside is a sure best-seller. (You may be sure that when one of those guys writes his next book, Lupica will be there advertising that it is the hottest read since Moby Dick.)
Dead Air may trample the distinction between wisecracks and wit, but you'll enjoy it. If Parker is the most relaxed in the field, Lupica is the most frantic. The entire book seems to be written in one-liners. When Lupica wants to tell you about the weather, he says, "Captain Humidity had Manhattan by the throat." When he wants to compliment a character's intelligence, he says, "...the radar gun had clocked his IQ at an icy cool 145...." I doubt if this style is what Gutenberg had in mind, but then, tastes change. Lupica's topical tale of the scandal and chaos that ensue after the disappearance of a model-turned-sportscaster-turned-talk-show-host is good for a few amusing hours in the sun or shade. As Lupica would put it, we're talking fun here.
John Logue's book Flawless Execution (Ballantine Books, paperback original, $2.95), is so topical it might well disturb and/or offend some people here and there in televisionland. The country's most famous sportscaster, the one fans "love to hate," the one who made NFL football and uses all those big words, is slaughtered gruesomely before a TV audience of several million just before the kickoff of a Jets-Cowboys game at Shea Stadium. On hand to plumb the depths of this high-tech crime is AP sportswriter John Morris and his sexy sidekick Julia Sullivan, and a good thing, too, because the author obviously has no regard at all for the talents of the New York City police. Former sportswriter Logue doesn't like the way they, and other New Yorkers, talk, either. Or the way he thinks they talk. In his previous books about Morris and Sullivan, assorted athletes were murdered. If he keeps this up, us jocks are gonna be seeking other employment.