Monday, April 5, 2010

Put Me In, Coach*

We recently had the chance to witness some spectacular athletic competition during the Winter Olympics that were held in Vancouver, B.C. And yesterday, the 2010 Major League Baseball season began. With all of this (and lots of other) sport activity going on, it seems a good time to think about how important sports are in most cultures. Practically every culture has some sort of sports or games, and it’s interesting to consider how very much integrated sport is into our lives. Even the way we speak includes lots of sports metaphors; for example, many people refer to a difficult situation as a “sticky wicket,” a weakened person as being, “on the ropes,” or a missed obligation as “dropping the ball.” With sports such an important part of our lives (even we’ve never played sports ourselves), it’s only natural that sports are integrated into crime fiction, too. Sports and athletics are very believable contexts, too, for murder mysteries; after all, they are often highly competitive, so it’s easy to imagine a murder in that kind of situation. Also, some sports attract lots of betting and gambling and that, too, is a very believable context for murder.

For example, many of the novels of Dick Francis are focused on the horse racing world. For instance, he introduces one of his sleuths, former-jockey-turned racetrack investigator Sid Halley in Odds Against. In that novel, Halley’s coping with the fact that an injury to his left hand has ended his racing career. He’s been working at the Hunt Radnor Associates Detective Agency for two years when he’s shot during the course of an investigation. When he recovers, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, engages Halley to find out what he can about Howard Kraye, a shady businessman whom Roland suspects of trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse as a part of a deal to build valuable property on the land. Halley takes the case and finds out that Kraye is part of a conspiracy to sabotage local racetracks in order to make a profit. In the end, Halley is able to uncover the plot and help save the racecourses. He also starts a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar novels are also centered on the world of sports. Bolitar is a former basketball star whose career was ended by a knee injury. After basketball, Bolitar worked as an FBI agent, but he’s now a sports agent, and does private investigation on the side. In his first outing, Deal Breaker, Bolitar is about to make a major deal for his first “name” client, rookie football quarterback star Christian Steele, who seems to be the “all-American” type. One day, though, Steele gets a call from an old girlfriend, Kathy Culver. What’s strange is that Kathy is supposed to be dead. Eighteen months ago, Kathy disappeared under strange circumstances, and everyone thinks that she was killed. Now, Christian starts getting strange clues that she may still be alive. So Bolitar decides to investigate to find out what really happened to Kathy. In the end, he discovers some dark secrets about Kathy’s family and her past as he uncovers the truth about her disappearance.

Sports is also the theme of Michael Balkind’s
Reid Clark series. Clark is a professional golfer who’s at the top of the PGA tour. He’s also known as difficult and temperamental. In Sudden Death, Clark receives a death threat on the night before he’s supposed to tee off on the final day of the Master’s Tournament. Reid’s agent, Buck Green, suggests that he hires private investigator Jay Scott to help him find out who’s behind the death threat, and why his life is at risk. Clark agrees, and Scott goes to work. Meanwhile, Clark’s focused on winning the tour, despite the risk to his life. In Dead Ball, Clark hires Scott again. In that novel, Clark has opened up AllSports, a large golfing complex designed to give inner-city young people a chance to learn about golf. One day, Clark is giving the President of the United States and the First Lady a tour of Allsports when they find the body of Clark’s friend, Bob Thomas. When the body is found, AllSports is locked down until the police can find out who the killer is, so Clark hires Scott to find the murderer as quickly as possible.

Even when sports aren’t at the center of a mystery, they can still play an important role in a story. That’s what happens in Mark Richard Zubro’s Tom Mason/Scott Carpenter series. Mason is a high school English teacher. His lover, Scott Carpenter, is a famous baseball pitcher. So sports are often integrated into these mysteries. For instance, in Why Isn’t Becky Twitchell Dead, we meet basketball and football player Jeff Trask, one of Mason’s remedial English students. Trask has been accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend, Susan Warren, after a party they both attended. He asks Mason to help him prove that he’s innocent, and Mason and Carpenter begin to look into the death. As they begin to interview the people who were at the party, they meet some of the other people involved in Susan’s life, including vicious Becky Twitchell, the daughter of the President of the School Board. Very soon, they find that Susan’s death is just the “tip of the iceberg” as they uncover a schoolwide drugs conspiracy involving the coach, a school administrator, other students, and some unexpected people. In the end, Mason and Carpenter find that Susan Warren’s death had everything to do with the conspiracy.

Zubro has created another series, too, featuring Chicago police officers Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick, and we see sports integrated in that series, too. In Another Dead Teenager, Turner and Fenwick investigate the murders of Jake Goldstein and Frank Douglas. Goldstein and Douglas were star athletes who were well-liked, not involved in drugs or gangs, and hadn’t seemed to make any enemies. On the night of the murders, they’d been invited to meet with some of the Chicago Bears football players after a practice session, but they never showed up. When their bodies are discovered, Turner and Fenwick look into their private lives to try to find a connection, but don’t seem able to. Then, another teenager is brutally murdered. Now, it seems that there’s a serial killer at work, and the two detectives have to find out who’s behind the murders before another student dies.

There’s plenty of classic crime fiction, too, in which sports play a role. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders that seem connected only by warning notes he receives before each murder, and an ABC railway guide lying near each body. In fact, everyone thinks these killings are the work of a crazed serial murderer. The killer seems to be choosing his victims in alphabetical order, so by the time the fourth warning comes, the police are out in full force in Doncaster, where the killer warns that the murder will take place. Everyone thinks that this time, with lots of extra police on duty, and everyone on guard, the murderer will be caught. There’s only one problem, though, as one character mentions:

“’It’s easy to see you’re not a sporting man, Inspector.’
Crome stared at him.
‘What do you mean, Mr. Clark?’
‘Man alive, don’t you realize that on next Wednesday, the St. Leger is being run at Doncaster?’”

In this case, the murderer makes use of the popularity of horse racing to draw attention away from the murder. In the end, it turns out that all of the killings have been committed not by an insane person, as Poirot says, but by a sane one.

In Cat Among the Pigeons, Poirot investigates the shooting murder of Grace Springer, games mistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. Late one night, Springer is found dead in the newly-built Sports Pavilion. At first, the police look for a personal reason for her death, but there doesn't seem to be one. She was annoying and nosy, but in the words of another character, "she was just the games mistress." Soon, though, some other mysterious happenings occur, including another murder and a kidnapping. Before long, it's clear the Meadowbank is the focus of something much larger than just someone getting upset with the games mistress.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, it’s cricket that plays an important role. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. a highly respectable advertising company, in order to investigate the death of copywriter Victor Dean. Wimsey finds out that Dean’s death is related to a drugs ring that’s been using the advertising agency to communicate with dealers. The closer Wimsey gets to the truth, the more dangerous his own situation gets. In the end, at a very pivotal cricket match, Wimsey shows not only his ability to get out of a difficult situation, but also his skill at cricket.

Much as we may enjoy them, sports aren’t always, “good, clean fun.” They can be competitive, risky, and can lead to murder. The tension and the pressure that’s felt in sports make a naturally suspenseful background to a crime fiction story, so it makes sense that there are several crime fiction novels that focus on or include sports. When they’re well-written, even those who aren’t sports fans can really enjoy them. Do you agree? If so, which sports-related crime fiction have you enjoyed? Or, if you don't enjoy sports, is that enough to keep you from reading sports-related crime fiction?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Fogarty's Centerfield

Go, Phillies : )!

On Another Note: Please accept my apologies if you commented on my post about characters from different series appearing together, and I didn't respond. Blogger decided to make me look the fool, and chewed up your comments and, for some of you, my responses. They did appear briefly, though, and I did read your comments, for which I thank you. I also tried to respond. Unfortunately, Blogger didn't like that, either. Please know that I appreciate all your input!


  1. I enjoyed Elizabeth George's "Playing for the Ashes". The novel is only tangentially related to cricket, the victim being a famous English cricketer, but is well-written though a bit longish .

  2. Book Mole - Thanks for that suggestion. I think Elizabeth George really is a great writer, though I agree, over 600 pages is rather long for a book. Still, I do love her Lynley/Havers series, and as you say, the victim is a cricketer.

  3. My sister loves the novels of Dick Francis I think she owns every one of them.

    I haven't read Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar's novels. I guess I'm not to into sports as a theme.

    I can't believe I haven't heard of many of these stories and writers.I have read AC's novels but if the theme is sports, I might not read but if it's just mentioned in passing, I might.


  4. Ann - I think a lot of the time, what we read is heavily affected by what our taste in themes is. If you're not into sports, then it's not likely you'd pick up a book that's focused on sports unless a review of it has convinced you otherwise. The Christie books I've mentioned really don't focus on sports, although they're inegrated, so even if you're not a sports fan, I think you'd enjoy "reliving" them : ).

  5. Margot, opening first boss back in 1968 had returned from several years working in the USA and knowing that I was at the time a sports nut [rugby, tennis, golf, and cricket] he explained the finer points of baseball to me. Stuck in Pittsburgh Greyhound bus depot during the 1979 World Series watching on TVs that looked like parking meters I became a fan.
    Many years later I discovered that Henry Chadwick "The Father of Baseball" designer of various scoring methods and the box score was born on October 5, 1824 in Exeter, England my home town for the past 23 years. Just one of the bits of information that clog up my brain.

  6. Norman - I didn't realize Chadwick was born in Exeter! You've a claim to fame : ). I feel for you, being stuck at the Pittsburgh Greyhound depot. I've been there more than once; I attended university about an hour or so from Pittsburgh. Not exactly luxurious surroundings ;). And of course 1979 was a World Series year for the Pittsburgh Pirates, so I'm everyone there was fixated on the games.

  7. Thanks for that note at the end, Margot- I thought it was a bit strange for a post of yours to have no comments. How odd of Blogger!

    I tend not to read a sports-centred novel knowingly, though I did enjoy Myron Bolitar's first few outings (not so sure about his last couple), Playing for the Ashes (again in a "parallel universe England" kind of way, rather than "England as we know it to be" - you have to take EG's world as you find it if you want to enjoy the books - if you don't, you can find loads of holes), Dick Francis's first 15 or so novels, and the Emma Lathen you discussed earlier. I also avoid sports movies unless they feature the younger Robert Redford or Kevin Costner;-) (thinking of The Natural and that one in which KC plays the washed-up baseball player and Susan Sarandon his love-interest).

    I suppose what I am rambling on about is that I don't mind if sport comes into a book but I would not go out of my way to buy one because it is about sport. Whereas I might if it were a legal or journalism theme.

  8. I read this as I'm still marveling at last night's great NCAA basketball championship game. I'm a sports nut but had never thought I would be interested in horse racing until I read my first Dick Francis mystery. That man could make cockroach racing fascinating.

    Go Phillies indeed!

  9. Everything I know about horse racing I learned from Dick Francis. But then again, he's also taught me about merchant banking, meteorology, and glass blowing (to name but a few). Sid Halley is one of my favourite characters and I was always pleased when he reappeared.

  10. You come up with the BEST ideas! Honestly, I feel like I am in a wonderful lecture room whenever I visit. We readers are so very lucky that you write a blog.

  11. Maxine - Please don't get me started about that strange behavior of Blogger. I was not pleased.

    I know exactly what you mean about the way the Bolitar novels have been going. I read the first few and enjoyed them. Lately??? Well......

    I also think you have a well-taken point about Elizabeth George. I really enjoy her novels, so I usually gladly forgive the things that aren't exactly true-to-life. I think we do that with authors of whom we're fans. We give them a lot more latitude than we do authors who don't impress us. At least I do.

    And I had to laugh when I read what you wrote about Kevin Costner. Did you know that his first role was as.....a corpse? It was. 1983's The Big Chill (one of my all-time favorite movies) is about a group of college friends who get together 15 years after graduation for the funeral of one of their number (Costner) who's committed suicide. At the very beginning of the movie, you see a shot or two of Costner as he is undergoing "the last touches" before the funeral. And yes, I loved him in Bull Durham. Field of Dreams, too.

    Barbara - Nice to know you're a phellow Phillies phan : ). You are so right about Dick Francis, too. I truly couldn't have put it better than you did : ). I've heard from sports freaks, sports-haters, and everyone in between. Everyone that I know of who's read Dick Francis has liked his work.

    Elspeth - Well-put : ). Dick Francis was also one of the most versatile writers we've had. There was always something new and interesting to learn from his work, wasn't there? And, yes, Sid Halley is a terrific character; he's got such a good blend of toughness and humanity, and he's a decent person.

    Nan - How very kind of you : ). Thank you for taking the time to say such nice things. I'm glad that you find my meanderings worth reading : ).

  12. I DON´T like sports, but when great crime writers include it in their novels, I enjoy the plots anyway. So I swallowed Cat Among Pigeons, Murder must Advertise and Playing for the Ashes because I had great expectations to the writers. But I have never tried Dick Francis because I know beforehand that the novels are about sports.

  13. Dorte - I know what you mean. When a great writer includes sports in a novel, even those who don't like sports can enjoy it. It's harder to get non-sporting-minded readers to warm up to a novel with a sports theme if the writer isn't already a favorite. In books such as Murder Must Advertise, too, the plot doesn't center completely around sports. So even those who aren't sports lovers can savor the story.

  14. I am a big sports fan and agree with most everything commented upon so far--especially the decline in Coben's Bolitar series, and the exceptional writing to be experienced in Dick Francis' books. I would respectfully suggest that Dorte H. give Mr. Francis a read.

    In the lost Blogger comments, I commented on a period-piece novel by Robert B. Parker entitled "Double Play." Set in 1947, this book is about Joe Burke, an ex-GI and WWII vet, who's hired by Branch Rickey to be Jackie Robinson's bodyguard when Robinson breaks baseball's color barrier. Sports fans and non-sports fans alike will love this book, I just know it!

    While not much of a Phillies fan, I did see my first live Major League game in 1960 in Connie Mack Stadium. I seem to remember the fans were heavily into booing even back then, when they really had a "boo-worthy" team. As Rodney Dangerfield might have lamented: "Tough crowd! Tough crowd!"

  15. Bob - Thanks for sharing your Phillies memory. I admit that the Phillies fans can certainly be tough, although I am one, myself. Also, thanks so much for making the effort to tell us about Double Play. Robert Parker was an exceptionally talented writer, and I'm quite certain, even without having had the chance to read that book, that it would probably be a good read. I appreciate your suggesting it.

    About Dick Francis? I agree that he was also very, very talented. We miss him. Francis had the skill to make the topic of horse racing (or whatever he was writing about) intensely interesting, didn't he?

    Finally, it's unfortunate, but I agree about Coben's Bolitar novels. Great concept, though, and Bolitar is a fascinating character. It'll be interesting to see what Coben decides to do next.

  16. I think that all that was left of KC's performance in The Big Chill's UK release was his big toe, which briefly appears in an early scene while some characters are talking round his body! Oh well, he made up for it later....

  17. Maxine - LOL! Well, there was his hair, too, but yes, not much in The Big Chill. As you say, though, it led to some very memorable roles later. It's funny you would mention that, too, because just last night, one of our local television stations played a rebroadcast of Bull Durham and I thought of you.