The 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.