A Gambler’s Share, The Only Risk That You Would Take*

GamblingThe focus of yesterday’s blog post was that jolt of adrenaline that many people enjoy. Some people get that ‘rush’ from things like scary movies, certain kinds of thrillers and ‘haunted house’ attractions. For other people, it comes from gambling and card/poolroom games. There’s the possibility of real stakes and real payoffs when you gamble. There’s also the chance of real losses, too. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t speak with authority about it, but I suspect that part of the appeal of gambling and games is that adrenaline jolt that comes from taking a risk. It’s a fascinating aspect of human psychology, so of course it’s no wonder we find it in crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith comes to Sherlock Holmes with an unusual problem. She spends the weekdays at Chiltern Grange, where she teaches piano to the daughter of Bob Carruthers, whose home Chiltern Grange is. She spends the weekends in London visiting her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that as she rides her bicycle from Chiltern Grange to the nearest train station, she’s been followed by a strange-looking man. He hasn’t hurt her or verbally threatened her but she’s getting worried about it and wants Holmes to investigate. He agrees and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter.  They find that Violet Smith is in great danger; she’s being used as a pawn, as you might say, and the stakes are high. And one of the major plot points in the history that led to her situation is a card game…

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) begins as a group of passengers boards a flight from Paris to London. A few of them have just come from a holiday at the gambling resort of Le Pinet and are on their way back to their respective homes. One of those passengers is Cicely Horbury. She’s a former chorus girl who caught the eye of Lord Stephen Horbury. Their marriage has been a failure, but Cicely has bigger problems than her feelings about her husband. She is a gambler who plays much more than is good for her. She’s had a heavy series of losses and had to borrow money from French moneylender Madame Giselle. Then, she lost again and couldn’t repay what she owes. She’s not sure what she’ll do, as Madame Giselle has threatened to reveal some scandalous information she knows about Cicely if she doesn’t pay her debts. As it happens, Madame Giselle is on this flight. So when she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, Cicely is a very likely suspect. Hercule Poirot also happens to be on this flight (much to his discomfiture) and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why.

One of the recurring characters in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series is Eleanor Wish. When we first meet her in The Black Echo, Wish is an FBI agent who works with Bosch to solve the murder of Billy Meadows. Bosch and Meadows served together during the Vietnam War, so Bosch has a personal interest in how his former friend’s body ended up stuffed into a large drainpipe. Wish eventually leaves the FBI and becomes a professional gambler. That’s what she’s doing when we meet her in Trunk Music. In that novel, Bosch investigates the murder of film-maker Tony Aliso, whose body was found, execution-style, in the trunk of his car. Wish and Bosch develop a relationship that ends up in marriage and in the birth of their daughter Maddie. The marriage ends, but Wish plays an important role in several Bosch stories.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series is Dena Many Camps. She’s a member of the Cheyenne Nation and when we first meet her in The Cold Dish, she is a bartender at The Red Pony, which is owned by Longmire’s friend Henry Standing Bear. Dena is a highly skilled pool/billiards player. In fact, she’s won several competitions and wants to try her luck in a pool tournament in Las Vegas. She does go to Las Vegas and in Death Without Company, we learn that she’s decided to stay there. I don’t think it’s spoiling the series to say that she doesn’t make her home there permanently, but it’s really interesting to see how the jolt of competition affects her.

Gambling and casinos have actually become a major source of income on many Native American reservations. There are several such casinos actually within an hour’s drive from where I live. I have to say I’m not a ‘regular’ at them, but it’s a fascinating socioeconomic development. And we see it in crime fiction in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. There’s been a violent robbery at a Ute casino. The thieves are said to be members of an extremist right-wing militia group that wants to use their haul to buy arms. The police think that Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai is in league with the thieves. The robbery couldn’t have gone off without an ‘inside person,’ and Bai worked part-time as a security guard for the casino. Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think that Bai is guilty though.  When she brings up her concerns to Sergeant Jim Chee, he starts asking some questions. It turns out that this robbery is connected with an old Ute legend, and with a modern-day murder.

Gambling on horse races features in a lot of crime novels; I’ll just mention one. In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometime-lawyer Jack Irish investigates the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. At the same time, he’s involved in a betting plan with some friends and his occasional employer. The betting arrangement isn’t, admittedly, the main plot of this novel. But it’s interesting to follow as the group pays attention to the races, makes its plans and tries to win.

There are a lot of other examples too of characters who are gamblers and players. There’s a real allure to the possibility of ‘the big win’ and the risk of a big loss. No wonder there are so many sport pools…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Still the Same.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

29 responses to “A Gambler’s Share, The Only Risk That You Would Take*

  1. There are, indeed, plenty of examples, Margot. Most of the books by Dick Francis are set in the world of horse racing. Patricia Moyes had her Inspector Henry Tibbett (and his wife Emmy, to be sure) investigating the high-stakes world of dog racing in “The Curious Affair of the Third Dog.”

    But perhaps the most unusual example would have to be found in the work of Norbert Davis. In his books about Doan and Carstairs, his private eye, Doan, acquired his partner – Carstairs, who is an enormous Great Dane – by winning him in a crap game. Make no mistake: Carstairs is the senior partner, too – Doan cheerfully admits that Carstairs is smarter and a better detective. Besides, Carstairs is so big, Doan figures he probably ought to be considered another species. I think he’s the only detective ever won in a crap game… 🙂

    • Les – You know, I almost mentioned Dick Francis. I’m so glad you did because he really is a great example of exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. And the Hebry/Emmy Tibbett mysteries are terrific too.
      Your story of how Davis and Carstairs get together reminds me a lot of how John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee won his boat The Busted Flush. There’s a reason it’s called that… You’ve reminded me too that I need to pay more attention to that series. I may even do a spotlight on it.

  2. I remember reading the first James Bond book Casino Royale and being completely enthralled by the long description of betting on baccarat – a game I had never heard of till then. I was young, and of course thought casinos and gambling impossibly glamorous, just like the people in them. Now I take a more cynical view….

    • Moira – Yes indeed. There’s lots of ‘surface’ glamour to gambling games, but I agree that as you get older, well, you see things that you don’t want to see as a young person. And thanks for the reminder of Casino Royale. That’s a fabulous example of gambling.

  3. Casinos make great crime scenes, that’s for sure. I’m not fond of the noise and the cigarette smoke, but it’s a great place to watch a lot of interesting people (the kind that make great secondary characters in mysteries) while feeding the nickel slots.

    • Pat – Oh, there’s no doubt about it. Casinos are excellent places to people-watch! The smoke isn’t so much fun for me either, and they do get crowded and loud. But it’s really easy to ‘fade into the background’ and just observe. Such inspiration for interesting characters I think. And casinos bring together such interesting disparate people. They’re terrific contexts for murder mysteries.

  4. Margot: I am going to move from crime fiction into truth is stranger than fiction for this comment. A prominent Canadian businessman and lawyer, Charles Vance Millar, died in 1926 without a wife or children. He left one of the most capricious wills ever written.

    With regard to your post directly he bequeathed $25,000 worth of shares in the Ontario Jockey Club to a trio of anti-horse racing individuals.

    Most famously he left the residue of his estate to the woman in Toronto who bore the most children in the 10 years after his death. The quest became known as the Great Stork Derby. The clause withstood legal challenges. I will let readers search online for the results of the Derby. I have always thought it a cruel rather than humourous bequest.

    • Bill – What a story!! Yes, indeed, truth is stranger than fiction at times. Hard to believe that it stood up in court. I can understand why you thought of it as a cruel bequest. Miller certainly had a malicious streak in his sense of humour…
      Folks, do follow this up – it’s an interesting story and a sad one too in a lot of ways.

  5. Dick Francis comes to mind with horse racing and gambling.

    • Patti – Dick Francis was such a talented writer. Someone one said ‘That man could make cockroach races interesting.’ I think that’s not far from the truth.

  6. I was going to mention Dick Francis who at one time lived not half a mile from me. Since he got off the horse and started to ride a typewriter he has entertained and educated many about the world of horses and horse-racing. A couple of other champion jockeys followed fast upon his heels but to date none has surpassed him. His son continues to write now that Dick has passed away.

    • Jane – I didn’t realise you had a personal connection like that to Francis. How neat!! And yes, his work was phenomenal. He is sorely missed.

      • Margot, not a personal relationship other than spoke to him in his garden once or twice when he was sitting enjoying the sun as I passed. Before he moved overseas. We were surrounded by the Berkshire Downs and many studs and racing stables nearby. The jockeys would come into the market town on a Saturday night to celebrate their wins, or drown their sorrows; drinking too much either way. HM The Queen Mum had her horses stabled nearby and so did many other serious trainers and owners. I used to love coming back in the early hours (from gigs) just as the sun was rising across the downs and will never forget the sight of several racing horses coming through the early morning mist as it rose from the downs, their breath steaming behind them as they went through their paces. Sunlight on their reins and the mud kicking up behind them, their jockeys neither sitting nor standing, their breath streaming from their open mouths as they concentrated on exercising their mounts. The noise of their hooves thudding on the hardened earth and their grunted breathing. Such a sight to behold at 4am with the White Horse in the background and Dragon Hill in the foreground. Magical. That is why Dick lived nearby and that is why I would get to chat to him if passing by and the weather was good. He would be watching them too – from a distance.

        • Jane – Oh, I had no idea! Thanks for sharing all of that fascinating history. I would have loved to see those horses. I’ve always loved horses and I like to ride very much. I’m not good enough by a long way to ride competitively, but it’s so much fun. And you’ve painted such a lovely picture of watching those workouts…

        • So pleased. I don’t ride. Did when little for a short time. I do love horses though. If you get to ride I envy you…must be wonderful.

        • Jane – I have to admit it; I do love riding. As I say, I’m nowhere near competitive, but I do enjoy it.

  7. I recently read about gambling of a different kind. In THE VULTURE IS A PATIENT BIRD, a rich, evil, crippled monster called Karl Kahlenberg gambles with the lives of four people when he allows them to escape into an African jungle and then sends his bloodthirsty Zulu warriors after them. If they evade the warriors, they’re free, otherwise… the kind of stuff we often see in the movies where people are both bait and game.

    • I forgot to mention that the novel was written by James Hadley Chase.

      • Interesting. I don’t know the novel, but that sounds a lot like a variant of Richard Connell’s classic short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which a shipwrecked man must allow himself to be hunted by an evil general on a Caribbean Island – same thing; if he can elude the general and his dogs, he can go free. The story dates from the 1920s, I believe. I know a LOT of books and movies have been based on that plot!

        • Les, I completely forgot about Connell’s famous short story which precedes Chase’s novel by several years. I have read it and I am glad you mentioned it. It spawned a whole lot of movies.

        • Les – They have indeed. And that’s precisely the story I thought of when I read Prashant’s comment. Great minds and all that… 😉

    • Prashant – Oh, that’s a great example of a very eerie sort of gambling. It reminds me of Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game. Les’ comment below gives the details.

  8. I have got to read Tony Hillerman’s books. Maybe I am intimidated by the large number of them.

    The only gambling that comes to mind for me is in movies. The James Bond movies, of course, but also The Sting. Although that is about con men, gambling is a large part of the plot.

    • Tracy – Oh, The Sting is such an excellent film on so many levels! And there’s certainly plenty of gambling in it. Every time I see that film I pick up something new from it.
      And I do recommend Hillerman. I know there are several novels in the series, but it is worth following in my opinion.

  9. Col

    I’m hoping to read some James Swain – Tony Valentine books I think next year. I think he works for the casinos thwarting cheats etc

  10. Margot – Happily I find myself immune to gambling’s seductive rush, but I sure love it when it appears in fiction ☺ Anyway I’m with Moira in that ‘real’ casinos don’t have much Bond-esque luster for me. I do love those casino scenes in the Bond novels and movies, however – how is it he can always draw that inside straight?

    • Bryan – I wish I had that kind of luck! You and Moira are both right that real-life casinos don’t have a lot of glamour. In fact, there are some pretty desperate people in some of them, and a real feeling of tension that you don’t find in the films and novels. And none of those wonderful clothes either. But in fiction, they’re almost Hollywood-like aren’t they? Quite surreal.

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