You Know I Think It’s Time to Give This Game a Ride*

The Major League Baseball season has started, the National Hockey League playoffs have started and the National Basketball League playoffs will be starting in a couple of weeks. And even though the Summer Olympic Games in London won’t be held until the end of July, there’s quite a lot of fervor already as final preparations are made and all of the athletes get into their best physical condition. Sport is a really important part of lots of people’s lives even if they don’t participate themselves. If you’ve ever had to get through a traffic jam because of people leaving or going to a game, you know what I mean. If you arrange your schedule to watch your favourite team play, you know what I mean. We see that interest in sport in real life of course, and we see it in crime fiction, too. And no, I don’t just mean sleuths such as Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and Dick Francis’ Sid Halley, who are former professional athletes. Sport’s woven all through the genre.

For instance, you wouldn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as a lover of sport, and really he isn’t. But in The Mystery of the Blue Train, he uses tennis matches as a very good opportunity to follow up on leads in the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. She was traveling on the famed Blue Train to meet her lover when she was strangled. At first the motive seems to be a jewel theft, since a very valuable ruby necklace she had was stolen. But Poirot soon discovers that it’s more complicated than that and he looks into the case at the request of Ruth’s father Rufus Van Aldin. Several of the important people from whom Poirot thinks he can get clues are attending a tennis match, so Poirot goes, too. And it turns out he gets some interesting and useful information there, too.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey shows himself to be quite the cricket player in Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, Wimsey goes undercover at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. when one of their copywriters Victor Dean is killed one afternoon when he’s at work. At first Dean’s death looks like a tragic accident (he fell down a flight of stairs), but he left behind a half-finished note alleging that someone at the company has been using company resources for illegal purposes. Pym’s management wants to get to the bottom of the matter and hires Wimsey for the purpose. Wimsey soon finds that someone in the company was using the company’s advertising resources to set up meetings between a drugs gang and a group of local dealers. Dean found out about it and was blackmailing that person, and that’s the reason he was killed. In his guise as new copywriter Death Bredon, Wimsey finds out who the killer was. He also ends up playing for the company cricket team and it’s at that match that the climactic scenes of the novel happen.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski follows sport closely and particularly likes the Chicago Cubs baseball team. In Indemnity Only, for instance, Warshawski is tracking down a young woman Anita Hill who seems to have disappeared. In the process of looking for the missing woman, she goes to the home of Anita’s boyfriend Pete Thayer only to find he’s been killed. Now Warshawski gets involved in a case involving insurance fraud, union thugs, and another murder. But she’s not too busy to listen to her beloved Cubs on the car radio as she drives, and we listen to the progress of the game, too. Warshawski is also a former basketball player and in Blood Shot (AKA Toxic Shock) she attends a reunion of her former team. That’s when Caroline Dijak, the organiser of the reunion, asks Warshawski’s help. Dijak wants to find her father, whom she never knew. Warshawski agrees, but then, the body of another friend is found in Dead Stick Pond. Now Warshawski has two cases, each involving friends of hers, to solve.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter and the son of a former Fitzroy player, so he spends his share of time with some of this father’s old football friends at the Prince of Prussia. In Bad Debts, Irish has just finished one case and is started on the case of the mysterious murder of Danny McKillop, a former client. He stops in at the pub and several of its usual denizens ask where he’s been.

 

“‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.”  

 

Irish also follows horse racing, and a sub-plot of this novel involves a case of racing and betting arrangements.

Helene Tursten’s sleuth Inspector Irene Huss is a former European woman’s champion in judo and is still involved. She teaches a judo class and her daughter Katarina has inherited her interest. Huss doesn’t solve her cases by using judo, but she does use it to stay in shape, clear her mind and focus when she needs to. Her workouts at the dojo and her interest in judo are woven through the novels rather than becoming a separate plot in and of themselves.

And then there’s Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave. In that novel, retired teacher Rose Walnut-Whip is murdered during a football match between England and Germany. Everyone has gathered to watch the match on television at the home of grocer Tuxford Wensleydale and the noise from the match is so loud and people’s attention is so fixed on what’s happening in the game that they pay no attention to what has happened to Rose until it’s too late. Constable Archibald Penrose isn’t accustomed to having to deal with murder cases, but his boss Chief Inspector Alexander Mars-Wrigley is far too interested in the outcome of the match to pay a lot of attention to the investigation. So with the help of his fiancée Rhapsody Gershwin, Penrose has to put the pieces of the puzzle together himself.

Even when sport isn’t a major theme of a novel, it’s often woven into a story in subtle ways. In many, many crime novels, characters watch ball games on television (or attend them), they talk about their favourite teams and so forth. Sport is a very important part of life for many people, so it makes sense that it’s a part of stories, too. Just to show you what I mean, here’s a bit I particularly like from Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, which isn’t even about sport. In that novel, Australian Federal Police Officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is taking a leave of absence from work. He’s lured back to investigate the murders of former politician Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Lorraine Starke. This is the conversation that takes place just after Chen has been persuaded to come back to work and help investigate this case:

 

Welcome back,’ said Talkative. “let’s go and talk post-mortems.’
‘Nah, I’ll come back tomorrow,’ I said, ‘to read my way through things.’
‘Dr. Nick will be shattered, not seeing you.’
‘He’s a South Sydney supporter,’ I said. ‘They’re used to heartbreak.’”

 

See what I mean about sport?

 

 
 

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

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Harlan Coben, Helene Tursten, Kel Robertson, Peter Temple, Sara Peretsky

22 responses to “You Know I Think It’s Time to Give This Game a Ride*

  1. I love it when they put sports into the novel. Except horse-jumping or horse-racing. I don’t know why. My sister owns and loves all books by Dick Francis but I could never get into it.

    However, a book with hockey or football (soccer) in it, love it! I’m a real hockey fan. Well, I am from Canada…

    • clarissa – I think a lot of people are like that; they have one sport or a few sports that they love and enjoy reading about. And then there are other sports that don’t interest them at all. And after all, you are from Canada… ;-)

  2. Margot: I have to mention my favourite Saskatchewan mystery – Prairie Hardball by Alison Gordon – featuring the Saskatchewan women who played professional baseball in the United States in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is also the only book including an event, a banquet, that is drawn from real life and at which I was in attendance. Gordon was the first woman sports reporter in Toronto to cover professional baseball with the Blue Jays.

    • Bill – I’m very glad you did mention Prairie Hardball. I’ve been wanting to read that one since I read your review of it. That’s so neat that you were at the banquet featured in the novel. Actually, I find the story of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League really interesting, too. I really must find a copy of that book!

  3. I don’t think Agatha Christie liked sports much as they rarely feature in her books, and only in a minor way, for example horse racing in ‘The ABC Murders’ and golf in ‘Murder on the Links.’ The exception sems to be drawing room games (bridge, canasta, mah jong) which pop up all the time.

    • Sarah – I think you have a point. Apart as you say from minor mentions, sport really doesn’t play a role in her novels. On the other hand, she did seem to enjoy games such as bridge and canasta. And there is indeed a very interesting game of mah jong in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’d have to agree that probably not a sporting enthusiast.

  4. kathy d.

    This post is reminding me to reread Blood Shot, as I didn’t recall this plot, so that will be a treat. And perhaps to become acquainted with Jack Irish.
    Sports doesn’t pull me in particularly but usually the games lead in interesting directions.
    Robert Parker used sports and games in several of his books, which were entertaining.
    I could never get into Dick Francis’ books, although friends liked them.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about Robert B. Parker’s books, so thanks for the reminder. When it’s woven in well, sport can add an interesting layer to a novel, even for people who don’t generally go in for sport. Parker did that well and he’s not the only one. And I do hope you get a chance to read Blood Shot. Since you’re a fan of the series, I’ll bet you’ll like it. And I absolutely recommend Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series. It’s terrific!

  5. I have been trying to get hold of a copy of “Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team” by George Jonas, a Canadian journalist. The novel formed the basis for Spielberg’s controversial film MUNICH in which Israel sends out a secret squad to eliminate the terrorists responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Of course, the plot is based around the world’s premier sporting event and not within the context of any one sport.

    Golf and cricket feature a lot in P.G. Wodehouse’s books. Golf used to be his favourite sport and he once said that he regretted not having spent all his life playing golf instead of writing stories. Imagine a reading life without Wodehouse and the absolutely delightful world he has created for us!

    I think a lot of writers succumb to the temptation of adding a bit of sports in their novels. It adds that extra element of thrill. Rowling was no less a victim as she has Ron playing a dangerous game of chess with moving pieces towards the end in HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. She went one step further and created her own sport — quidditch!

    Katherine Neville’s debut novel THE EIGHT also revolves around an antique chess set. An absolute thriller and I highly recommend it to those who haven’t read it.

    Sports and games in fiction probably reflects a writer’s passion for a particular sport or game.

    • Prashant – I think you’re right that when an author had a particular love of sport in general or one sport in particular, s/he explores that in a novel. And you’ve gotten me interested in reading Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team. It sounds like an interesting take on that awful act of terrorism. I must try the Katherine Neville novel, too.
       
      And thanks for mentioning P.G. Wodehouse. Such an influential author and his work really did create a world that millions of people have come to love.

  6. kathy d.

    This just made me think of a line I loved (which fits me to a T) made by the delightful Bernie Rhodenbarr, as created by Lawrence Block. It is not exactly a sport, but to avid pursuers of jogging, it is a passion.
    “I once got the urge to jog, but I lay down and let it pass.” Enough said.

  7. I must admit sports don’t generally pull me into a story which I suppose stems from the fact I don’t follow any sports in any major way. I have no objection to people who do (well except the ones who talk about nothing else but their team’s exploits for hours on a Monday morning) but it’s not really my thing. That’s one reason I find it odd that I like the Dick Francis books so much as I have no interest in horse racing.

    Boxing seems to pop up quite a lot in crime fiction – lots of ex boxers as cops or private eyes – Robert B Parker’s Spenser, Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy and so on. I have to admit I can’t abide boxing.

    • Bernadette – I know what you mean about the Dick Francis novels. I’m not very much interested in horse racing myself, but he was such a very talented writer. I once had a comentator on my blog who wrote of Francis: ‘The man could make cockroach racing interesting.’ He had a good point. And you’ve got a point about reader interest in sport, too. Not everyone is deeply interested in sport. So if an author is going to integrate something about sport it’s got to be done effectively, with a focus on a good plot, etc..
       
      I hadn’t thought about it but there really are a lot of references to boxing in crime fiction both in terms of a setting/context for a mystery and in terms of the sleuth being a former boxer. It’s not at all (I mean at all!) my kind of thing but I know a lot of people love it.

  8. I don’t read sports novels which is why it took me a while to read the Myron Bolitar novels you mention- I really enjoyed the first few (which featured a different sport in each, so you didn’t have time to get bored by one!) – but they have now become routine. I think one of Emma Lathen’s was about sport- maybe golf? The latest Jo Nesbo, Phantom, has a rather interesting take on soccer, or rather, London football clubs! I don’t mind when sports comes into a novel, but I don’t like it to be the main focus, as I don’t understand the rules of most sports and it is tedious to have them explained to you in a book. (Exception, of course, cricket, which I do like to read about & know all the rules in great detail – one of Kate Ellis’s books was about a murder at a cricket match; Elizabeth George wrote one about barges and the England cricket team (Playing for the Ashes); and I expect Peter Wimsey raised his bat a few times).

    • Maxine – Right you are about Emma Lathen. There’ve been a couple actually featuring sport. One was even centred on the 1980 Winter Olympics. And thanks for reminding me of Playing For the Ashes. I’m not sure that I read that one, but it is ringing a bell. Hmmm…I’ll have to go back and sift through my memory. And yes, Lord Peter Wimsey certainly raises his bat, at least in Murder Must Advertise. I think when one understands a sport and its rules as you understand cricket, it’s easier to get involved in a novel that features that sport. You’re right though that having to have the rules of a sport explained can get tiresome. Not a lot of authors do that very effectively, ‘though some can.
       
      I’m also glad you mentioned PHantom. I’m waiting my turn at the library to read that one :-). Your comment about football clubs made me think of the first of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels, A Clubbable Woman. A football club features very strongly in that one.

  9. p881

    I always think of Dick Francis of course. I am surprised sports are not used more in crime novels. Woody Allen used tennis in Matchpoint, of course. And I believe Patricia Moyes used sking in one of hers. Oh, and archery in Louse Penney, right?

    • Patti – Right you are about Louise Penny; bow-hunting and archery figure in Still Life. And it is interesting to think about how much a part of many people lives sport is. Megan’s even woven it into Dare Me in the form of cheerleading, isn’t that right?

  10. Skywatcher

    The RAFFLES short stories by E W Hornung have a cricket playing cat burglar as the central character. Some adaptions soft-pedal on the sporting aspects of the story, but they are in fact central to his character. Raffles appears to be a ‘gentleman’ rather than a ‘player’–that is, he seems wealthy enough not to be paid for his sporting activities.. In fact, as he admits to his friend, he is actually a professional…a professional thief. Even so, he admires sportsmanship, and will carry out thefts that he does not benefit from (in A JUBILEE PRESENT he steals a gold cup in order to send it to Queen Victoria as a present from the criminal classes).

    • SKywatcher – Thank you for mentioning those stories. I confess that’s part of the canon of early detective fiction that I haven’t read, ‘though I’ve heard of these stories. It’s interesting how there is perceived to be a major difference between “gentlemen” who play at sport and sportsmen – those who are paid – in that era.

  11. My mother-in-law used to read every Dick Francis novel, but I don’t think she even liked horses very much. It’s interesting how we can get interested in fictional sports but not care about them in real life. I feel that way about hockey.

    • Pat – I’ve had the same experience myself. For instance, in real life I’m not overly interested in skiing, yet I found it a very interesting background in Emma Latham’s Going For the Gold. When an author gets the reader’s interest, even something we don’t care much for in real life can keep us reading.

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