With his tough, tongue-in-cheek detective, Spenser, Robert B. Parker has created one of the most successful figures in modern crime fiction. PLAYMATES is the sixteenth entry in the Spenser series, and it marks a welcome return to a story line closer to those of the earlier books in the series. When rumors of point-shaving surface at a college near Boston, the school hires Spenser to investigate. Assisted by his friend, Hawk, and his girlfriend, psychotherapist Susan Silverman, the detective finds himself caught in a moral dilemma when the truth behind the rumors threatens a player’s future.

The story itself lacks the substance, and to some extent the suspense of the best of the Spenser books, but Parker’s rapid pacing and deadpan wit--always highlights of his work--turn a thin plot into an enjoyable mystery. Spenser’s irreverent banter is handled with Parker’s usual skill, and his intriguing stance as a hard-boiled hero motivated by a conscience and a firm sense of honor remains unchanged. Parker has used the books, with varying degrees of success, to explore his character’s personal code of ethics, and that is the case with PLAYMATES as well.

Several of the more recent books in the series have dealt extensively with Spenser’s relationship with Susan Silverman, in some cases opting for contrived plotting and heavy handed philosophizing. PLAYMATES finds Spenser and Susan at a stable point in their relationship and her assistance with the case is believable and well-handled. Indeed, despite its flaws the latest Spenser novel is a witty and tautly written mystery.