>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!