Book Review: “Fadeaway,” by Richard Dean Rosen

Fadeaway, by Richard Dean Rosen

I took a break from Shaquille O’Neal’s autobiography to start another edition of the Best American Sports Writing series, then another from BASW to make some more progress on Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt.

When I needed a break from that, I decided to grab a work of fiction, just for a change of pace. I went with Fadeaway, a 1986 crime novel by Richard Dean Rosen.

Fadeaway tells the story of Harvey Blissberg, a recently retired baseball player who becomes a private investigator. The Boston Celtics hire him to look into the disappearance, and then quickly murder, of one of their players.

I don’t read a lot of crime novels, but this seemed like a pretty good one: A brisk pace that still builds a sense of mystery; plot twists that don’t feel forced and come at exactly the right moments; enough details to make the story easy to visualize

With the book itself, I just have a few minor complaints. Rosen inexplicably refers to the NCAA as the “N C double A” — a very awkward construction of that acronym that breaks the rhythm of whatever sentence in which it appears. And Rosen spells out the accent of Frank Heaney, a college basketball coach central to the plot, in a way that’s hard to read and actually makes the character sound slightly mentally disabled.

But these are tiny hang-ups in what was otherwise a very enjoyable reading experience. I found myself regretting every time I had to put the book down.

Unrelated to the plot, Fadeaway left me with two big questions.

Why was Blissberg a baseball player?

Blissberg seems like a pretty good detective. He’s intuitive, persistent, creative, intelligent, comprehensive — all the qualities necessary to work in that field. And he uses those skills to solve the case in a satisfying and realistic way.

Before becoming a private eye, Blissberg played for the Red Sox and made-up expansion team the Providence Jewels. That life impacts Blissberg in two ways: it gives him a passing familiarity with Providence, where much of the book takes place, and it creates a hostile relationship with the various local sports writers with whom he has to work.

But Blissberg’s prior knowledge of Providence could’ve been easily replicated by looking at a map for like 10 minutes. And here’s how every interaction with a reporter happens: the reporter says something nasty, Blissberg asks for help, then the reporter always gives it to him, usually within half a page. For all the bluster, not once does a reporter actually impede Blissberg’s ability to do his job.

Fadeaway makes a big deal of Blissberg’s background, but his experiences as a professional athlete have exactly zero impact on his life as a detective. Really, Blissberg could’ve been a former deep-sea diver or electrician, and it wouldn’t make a difference.

This doesn’t matter to the book itself, but someone recommended it to me because the main character was an ex-baseball player. That his background plays such a miniscule role in the actual plot is a bit of a rip-off.

Why was this novel set in Boston?

Rosen shows a solid understanding of Cambridge and Boston, having gotten his B.A. and taught at Harvard and worked for various Boston media outlets (including the Boston Phoenix and WGBH) from 1972-1984. Rosen depicts the geography of the region well, but his writing doesn’t quite capture the soul of the city.

Rosen seems not to get what teams like the Celtics and Red Sox actually mean to Bostonians. That’s evident in his scenes at the old Boston Garden, where Blissberg talks to an administrator with a cigar.

That’s a nod to Red Auerbach, but not a very good one. You can’t write about the mid-80s Celtics without actually having Auerbach in the novel somewhere, and Rosen fails at that miserably.

Fadeaway came out in 1986 and spends an early chapter dealing with whether cocaine use in the NBA played into the murder. I couldn’t discover if the book came out before or after, but it came out in the same year as the death of Len Bias, a Celtics draft pick who died of a cocaine overdose and whose death marked the beginning of the end of the 1980s Celtics dynasty.

Rosen was working in New York in 1986, and he likely wrote the book long before Bias’ death, so any connections between the two is incidental at best. But whether incidental or not, a novel about a dead Celtic with possible cocaine issues can’t help but come off as a little cruel.

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