Baseball Books Reviewed: Rum Point

Rum Point: A Baseball Novel by Rick Wilber (McFarland & Company, 264 pg., $25). PB, 2010.

The baseball mystery novel is a tricky proposition, a combination of delicious tastes difficult to mix successfully. For readers who are more fans of mystery than of baseball, too much who-done-it is an impossibility. On the other hand, when the baseball is subordinate to the mystery, fans of fiction about baseball first and foremost may finish such a book feeling a little dissatisfied. The latest baseball mystery to deal with this literary conumdrum is Rick Wilber's Rum Point: A Baseball Novel. The protagonist of Rum Point is Felicity Lindsay, a young cop on the police force of the small Florida community of the title, whose father (Stu Lindsay) just happens to be the alcoholic but amiable manager of the nearby major league St. Petersburg Crusaders. As the book opens only three regular season games remain on the Crusaders' schedule. If Stu can lead his team to one more win, the Crusaders will qualify for the post season (as a wild card team) for the first time in franchise history. This success, should it happen, will amount to the crowning achievement of Stu's long career in baseball and will presumably purge from Stu's psyche the ghost of a disappointed and deceased father who, in a recurring delusion, makes cell phone calls to Stu to question, to advise, and to harrangue his son about his choice of career. (A renowned physicist, Stu's father had wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.)

The success of the Crusaders is also vitally important to the team's owner, The Reverend Morrel Craig, a good man who wants to use the team profits to fund, not a lavish lifestyle, but his religious ministry in poor countries. Unfortunately, the Reverend has two big problems: Alzheimer's disease and trust in his general manager, George Brooks, one of the two villains of the novel who has been secretly running the ball club as a front for his burgeoning drug smuggling empire.

The murder, which is discovered by the night patrolling Felicity as the victim lay dying near a sea turtle nest on the beach, is a gruesome one. It happens at the very beginning of the story and quickly takes the focus of the main characters (as well as that of the reader) off the pennant race. In fact, halfway through the novel, the setting shifts to a most un-baseball-like locale, the Grand Cayman Islands, when all the main characters (good and bad) hie there in an attempt to: solve the original murder; commit more mayhem, murder, and treachery; or protect loved ones playing sleuth. Thus, as the most important contest in Crusaders history takes place, the team's owner, general manager, field skipper, and best player (a malcontent drug-abusing slugger suspended by Stu Lindsay) are not only not at the game ... they are all out of the country! A curious situation to say the least, but also one that is fascinating and integral enough to the plot that readers may have no qualms in granting Wilber their approval of his use of the subtitle, "A Baseball Novel."

Not in question at all is Wilber's ability to create and sustain the considerable suspense which makes Rum Point such a fast-paced ride. We figure out the identity of the perpetrator of the original murder almost immediately, but whether Felicity and the other good eggs in the story (such as the murder victim's brother whom Felicity falls for) will survive the unraveling of the dangerous mess they are drawn into is something we don't know until the very end. Wilber is quite skilled at exiting the short chapters of the novel at high points of unresolved conflict and then getting back to them for some resolution after first racheting up the suspense and complicating things even more in subsequent chapters. Equally pleasing is Wilber's effective use of third person point of view: his describing the action, moving it along, and even providing differing interpretations of the action via the thoughts and reactions of the characters, alternating them one after the other. The frustration of reading the Reverend constantly repeat thoughts he's had just moments before simulates what it probably is like to live with and care for someone suffering from the terrible disease he has. Getting inside the minds of the pyschopathic Brooks and his favorite employee, the ruthless hitman Robert Mackie, is downright chilling and makes both of them characters the reader won't soon forget.

Finally, Wilber displays a deft touch in handling the plot. Rum Point rushes towards an explosive, frenetic, "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" conclusion, and most characters (though not everybody) pretty much gets what he deserves in the end. The novel also offers several surprises along the way. Happily, these surprises are the inspired kind the reader delights in rather than the kind he resents as implausible or hackneyed. The final surprise especially wraps the whole thing up with a pretty bow of poetical justice. Whether it has enough baseball for you or not (and despite some annoying proofreading failures), this is an engrossing engaging novel that should cause you to look forward to Mr. Wilber's next work of fiction.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (Jan. 25, 2010)