June 19, 1989 12:00 PM

by Robert B. Parker

Title notwithstanding, Parker’s 16th Spenser novel isn’t about sexy centerfolds. And it’s just as well. Recent Spensers, especially last year’s Crimson Joy, have shown signs of fatigue. So Parker has returned to an arena that has served him well in the past—sports. Spenser No. 3, Mortal Stakes, for example, was about a Boston Red Sox pitcher accused of throwing games. Here Parker explores the world of college basketball through a point-shaving scandal at fictional Taft University.

Playmates is cause for good cheer on several fronts. After weathering a tiresome mid-life crisis, Spenser is good company again. “I was dressed to the nines,” he says, “armed to the teeth, ready to lunch with the WASPs. If I hadn’t been me, I’d have wished I were.” The hard-nosed Boston gumshoe is getting along with his psychotherapist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, and their banter is as lively as ever. The stalwart Hawk remains a delightful character; when he’s not reading A Brief History of Time or listening to Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, the erudite enforcer dispatches bad guys with his usual aplomb.

At the heart of the novel is the towering figure of hoop star Dwayne Woodcock. A 6’9″ power forward, Woodcock is a ghetto kid from Brooklyn who has made it to his senior year in college without learning to read. With his traditional economy of prose, Parker draws a compelling portrait of a gifted yet spoiled man-child. Woodcock has the unappealing habit of speaking of himself in the third person, as in “Dwayne Woodcock don’t need no help.” Dwayne, of course, does need help, and that’s where Spenser comes in, faced with the tricky task of bringing down the gamblers without implicating Dwayne and, for good measure, persuading the illiterate player to learn to read. The denouement is tidy, if a bit contrived.

Playmates is a quick read, short enough for most people to devour in a sitting or two. So what if Playmates is the literary equivalent of popcorn? What’s wrong with popcorn? (Putnam, $17.95)

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