I Had a Friend Was a Big Baseball Player Back in High School*

Youth SportsIt’s fairly well documented that being physically active is good for physical and mental health. And if research on intelligence and knowing is correct, it seems that we’re all born with a certain measure of what’s sometimes called kinesthetic intelligence. That’s the sense of our bodies in space, and it’s essential to doing well in things like sport.

Put those two things together and you have some very strong arguments for including sport in the school curriculum. It helps young people develop good health habits and it teaches other skills such as teamwork. For those students with a lot of kinesthetic intelligence, it also allows them to play to their strength and have some real success. Students who are exceptionally talented can use that skill as a steppingstone to a sometimes very lucrative career, too. And for many (certainly not all) students, it’s fun.

Of course, not everything about school sport is positive. Sometimes parents and coaches put unhealthy pressure on young people. There’s also the element of bullying. And there are plenty of cases where young sport stars get away with things that their counterparts who are less skilled on the field don’t. But for better or worse, sport is woven into most young people’s school experiences.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that it’s woven into crime fiction too. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Cyril Overton, who coaches Cambridge’s rugby team. He’s concerned because his three-quarter Godfrey Staunton has gone missing. As if his personal concern for the young man’s welfare weren’t enough, the Cambridge team is scheculed for a match against Oxford the next day – a match they have no chance to win if Staunton doesn’t play. Holmes and Watson trace Staunton’s movements to the moment when he left the hotel where the team has been lodging. Then he uses other clues (including a scent-dog!) to find out what really happened to the young athlete. In this case, the solution has everything to do with a message Staunton received before he left.

Agatha Christie’s Cat Among The Pigeons is in part a look at games and sport at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. Shortly after the summer term begins, newly hired games mistress Grace Springer is shot one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. The police are called in and begin to investigate. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, uncovers an important clue to the events, and visits Hercule Poirot, who is a friend of one of her mother’s friends. Poirot returns to Meadowbank with Julia and works with the police and with Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode to find out the truth. Interestingly, Julia and her friend Jennifer Sutcliffe are both avid tennis players and enjoy the chance for physical activity. But not every student feels that way. It’s interesting to see the difference in attitdues among the students.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep introduces us to Martha Gunn, coroner for Shrewsbury. Gunn is also the widowed mother of twins Sam and Sukey. In this novel, the focus of the main plot is the murder of an unidentified man whose body floats out of a house when the River Severn overflows its banks. His death turns out to be connected with a missing person case that occurred at about the same time. And no, the missing man is not the dead man. In the meantime, Gunn faces a bit of a personal dilemma. Sam is a very talented footballer; in fact, he’s the ‘Beckham of Shrewsbury School.’ One day, she gets a call to a school meeting with Paul Grant, the P.E. Master. He gives her the news that Sam has rare talent and could easily get a place at a football training school. And therein lies the problem. On the one hand, Gunn supports her son’s talent and wants him to succeed. On the other, she knows the odds of becoming a professional footballer for one of the well-paying clubs. And there’s always the risk of serious injry. The solid education he’s getting at his present school will prepare him for all kinds of careers. So at first, she isn’t sure what she and Sam will do. It’s a choice that a lot of parents of talented athletes have to face.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician. She is also the mother of four children, and throughout the series, her home life is woven into the plots. Kilbourn’s third child Angus is very much a ‘sporty’ sort of person. Throughout the novels he plays (Canadian rules) football, Ultimate Frisbee and other sports as well. I don’t think it spoils the series to say that Angus doesn’t end up becoming a professional player. But in several of the stories (Verdict in Blood is one example), his school sport experience plays a role in the larger plots of the novels.

Irene Huss, the creation of Helene Tursten, is a homicide inspector with the Göteborg Violent Crimes Unit. She is also a former jiujitsu champion who came to national fame at a young age. She no longer competes formally, but she still goes to the dōjō for occasional workouts. Jiujitsu helps her to focus, to stay physically fit and to reduce stress. Huss is also the mother of twin daughters Jenny and Katarina. Jenny’s interests are more musical, but Katarina shares her mother’s love of sport. For years she studies jiujitsu too, and although she doesn’t compete nationally, she enjoys it. Then in The Fire Dance, she takes an interest in dance. Huss is none too happy about her daughter not making use of all of the years of jiujitsu training she’s had, but she knows arguing about it won’t do any good. Besides, Katarina is excited about it – and about the young man who’s sparked her interest in dancing. Every parent who’s done some sort of sport and wants to pass it on can understand Huss’ feelings…

And then there’s Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. In his professional capacity, Bruno is kept busy balancing the requirements of the law with the reality of the lives of the people he serves. And sometimes, that’s not easy. But he always makes time to coach the local youth football team. His belief is that if young people are encouraged to play at one or another sport, they’re less likely to become delinquent. He’d quite frankly rather coach them than arrest them. It works out rather well for everyone, since the young people know him as more than just a cop who’s out to keep them from having a good time.

Perhaps you loved swimming, tennis, football, or some other sport in school. Perhaps you dreaded P.E. Either way, it’s an important part of a lot of curricula. And there is something in staying active and fit. And school sport can lead to a really lucrative career for a lucky few, and millions in alumni donations. Not surprising then that we see it in crime fiction. Which gaps have I left?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Helene Tursten, Martin Walker, Priscilla Masters

30 responses to “I Had a Friend Was a Big Baseball Player Back in High School*

  1. Clarissa Draper

    School sports. Wow, I’ve never been into sports and so mysteries revolving around such sports never appealed to me much. However, I did enjoy reading a novel by JC Martin called Oracle and it was about the 2012 Olympics. Does that count?

    • I think it does, Clarissa. Lot of Olympic athletes start when they’re very, very young. Thanks for the suggestion. And to be honest, I did better in the classroom than on the field myself when I was in school.

  2. Margot: With regard to Irene Huss, the only book I have read in the series is Detective Inspector Huss and I recall it referring to judo rather than jiujitsu. They certainly share elements but are different martial arts. The phrasing in Detective Inspector Huss was a touch confusing and I wondered if the author was intending to refer to judo. I am not in any way critical of your post. I expect it is my background in judo that led me to notice the point.

    Steve Solomon, in Trial & Error by Paul Levine, signs up his nephew, Bobby, for Little League baseball though Bobby has few athletic skills. The team is a little different from some teams in that all the players are Jewish. There are some issues. It is more Steve wanting Bobby to play than Bobby desiring to play. As well the coach is overbearing. The results are interesting.

    • Bill – You’re absolutely right that judo and jiujitsu are not the same. As you say, they have things in common, but are different. I’ve read both terms in the series (You’re right that it’s judo in Detective Inspector Huss). I wonder whether it’s a translation thing, since the books are written in Swedish? It’s interesting…
      Thanks too for mentioning Trial and Error. I think a lot of parents sign their children up for sports because they want them to play, not because the children do. And of course, some coaches do push an awful lot too hard. I don’t think that attitude is really healthy for young people. To me, there’s a balance between not challenging young people to try their best and the ‘win or die’ attitude.

  3. Gotta mention Megan Abbott’s ‘Dare Me’! Before I read it, untutored Brit that I am, I’d never have thought of cheerleading as a sport, but she wowed me so much with her descriptions of the lengths these girls go to to ‘fly’ that I ended up spending hours watching videos on youtube. I’ll never laugh at pom-poms again… 😉

    • FictionFan – No doubt about it: Dare Me shows a whole other side to school sport. I think a lot of people don’t know how physically demanding cheerleading is, but it is. And Abbott certainly does give us an inside look at it. Thanks for that addition; it fits beautifully.

      • I gave my daughter my copy in a desperate attempt to get her reading books again instead of fiddling with her iPhone – she used to always have her head in a book, but at 19 her head’s on other things. Pleased to say it worked; she loved it. Only thing is, I’ll have to get another copy so I can read it now. And find something for her to read next, so she keeps it up – possibly We Were Liars, I thought?

        • I’m glad she enjoyed Dare Me, Crimeworm. Megan Abbott is such a talented author! And I think We Were Liars might be just the thing to suggest next. There’s actually a growing body of fiction out there aimed at young adults like your daughter: grown out of ‘traditional’ YA, but wanting something aimed at that 18-22 age group.

        • I said it’d be good if she wanted to pitch in with the blog, maybe do an occasional feature about what different generations think of the same book?? It’s really just a cunning scheme to get her reading again! I don’t think there was such a thing as a YA section when we were young, Margot, well certainly not in the UK! Yet it’s become a colossal market…I

        • It certainly has, Crimeworm! And it’s only been in the last, perhaps, ten years or so that it’s become such a huge market in the US. As you say, that niche wasn’t around when we were young. And by the way, I love your idea of having your daughter help out with the blog. It’s really fascinating to get a few different perspectives on the same novel. I think that’s why I like reading different reviews on the same novel. And if you add the ‘generation’ factor, you can really get some interesting discussion going. And she’ll read more… 😉

        • That’s my cunning plan! She did well at school, especially in English and Drama, but by that point she’d been offered an apprenticeship in the hairdresser where she was a weekend girl, and as it’s probably the most prestigious hairdressers in Glasgow (our First Minister uses it!) she took it, as she thought going to Uni would only result in a lot of debt. She’s finished that, so will always have that under her belt – and she’s at college now, studying Sound Production, and working in an electric co’s call centre for some extra cash. So she’s always busy. She’s a sensible girl, which sounds dull, and she’s far from that – it’s just she’s got her head screwed on, which is reassuring!

        • It certainly sounds like her head’s screwed, and you’re right, Crimeworm – that is reassuring. It sounds as though she’s got some good experiences under her belt, too. Sound Production sounds like an interesting field, too. Of course, all this means her life’s busy, but hopefully she’ll still fit some reading in, and even more when she finishes her studies.

  4. Murder Must Advertize by Dorothy L Sayers. Bensons, the advertising agency, fields a cricket team. Lord Peter, who is undercover, is recognized because of his characteristic late cut (whatever that is), and he also – with regret – discovers who did the murder because of a classy bit of fielding. Never before or since have I found cricket so interesting….

    • Moira – Oh, I agree! Sayers made cricket really interesting in that novel. And although the series doesn’t really give us a lot of detail about Lord Peter’s childhood, I have the feeling he probably did well in games and sport at school.

  5. Keishon

    Hey, Margot. Here I go again off point as usual.

    Not a school sport but Clinton McKinzie’s main protagonist was into mountain climbing and I remember that being a significant part of the character development and also a plot point in the first book in the series, The Edge of Justice. I was never into sports even though I was tall enough to have people bug me about playing soccer and basketball. I did play baseball for a short while. Also, Mortal Stakes by Robert B. Parker includes baseball as a major part of the story and I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t mind sports being apart of the story so thanks for those recs, Margot.

    • Keishon – That’s not off point. It’s interesting that people wanted you to play ‘tall’ sports even though you weren’t interested. I suppose sometimes people make assumptions about what you ‘should’ want to do based on build and so on. I’m glad you reminded me, too, of Mortal Stakes. I need to re-read Parker – I really do.

      • Keishon

        You should, Margot. Robert B. Parker is a comfort read for me. Whenever I can’t get into anything or life gets me down, I pull out Spencer with his trademark wisecracks to make me laugh or smile. Never can go wrong with Parker’s books.

  6. I had to read this one when I saw the title (HUGE fan of The Boss!) Another great post Margot. I was useless at sport – always the last picked for teams etc. And I love Parker too, I’ve got a couple on the Kindle, must read one soon; thanks for the reminder!

    • I’m a fan of The Boss myself, Crimeworm! Thanks for the kind words about the post, too. And you’re not the only one who was better inside the classroom than on the field… Well, we can’t all ‘Bend it like Beckham.’ Oh, and about Parker? Perhaps we should do a ‘(re)read Robert B. Parker’ meme or something. His work really is worth it…

  7. I was useless at team sports as well – amongst the last to be picked – although I excaped eternal bullying by being somewhat OK at high-jump and long-distance running. But the competitive spirit in sports does make for some good crime links. I’m thinking of Josephine Tey’s ‘Miss Pym Disposes’, set in a PE college for girls. And I remember a rather funny scene involving curling on the ice in Louise Penny (funny because of the francophone detectives’ reaction to this Anglo sport). However, with deadly outcomes.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m really glad you mentioned A Fatal Grace! Penny does such a good job there at describing curling, I think. And yes, Miss Pym Disposes is a terrific portrait of PE at school. I’m glad you filled in those gaps. Oh, and I wish I had the endurance for long-distance running. Nope. Never had it. A bit of gymnastics, yes. Running and high jump? No.

  8. I was thinking of Miss Pym Disposes, too, especially as my attitude to school sport is similar to Miss Pym’s: I didn’t like it and I wasn’t any good at it!
    There is a very enjoyable novel by Emma Lathen, Murder Without Icing, set in the world of professional ice hockey.

    • Christine – Yes, I definitely left a gap by not including Miss Pym Disposes. I’m glad you folks filled it in. Also very glad you mentioned the Lathen too. That writing duo did another sport-related novel Going For the Gold, set at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Perhaps economics and banking weren’t their only interest?

  9. Not much into sports myself either (although I used to watch Pro Basketball religiously), but lots of interesting books discussed here. I had forgotten about the Emma Lathen book on ice hockey, that would be a good one to reread. Also interesting about the judo / jiujitsu thing in the Irene Huss books.

    Harlan Coben has a series about a sports agent and former basketball player, Myron Bolitar, but I haven’t read any of those.

    • Thanks, Tracy, for reminding us of the Myron Bolitar series. That’s a great sports-themed series. I think the first ones are especially good. And I thought the judo/jiujitsu question fascinating too.

  10. Cat Among the Pigeons is one of my favourite SC books. The description of the sports mistress is a bit stereotypical I suppose but still great fun. I watched a recent TV adaptation and they had changed the murderer! I was outraged.

    • They changed the murderer?! I would’ve been outraged too! That’s one thing I have to admit: I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to adaptations, especially for something like that; that’s hardly ‘just a detail.’ And about Cat Among the Pigeons? I agree it’s a great book.

  11. Mysteries about professional athletes are often quite effective, too. I recall one of the Jonathan Valin Harry Stoner novels with professional football as a backdrop. One of the characters had the particularly apropos name of Otto Bluerock. A Spenser novel too about a baseball player, but I don’t recall the title. There’s also tennis player Guy Haines in the film Strangers on a Train, though in the novel I believe he was an architect. And boxing noir has been the font of several good movies.
    It also occurs to me that chess (a sport?) would be a terrific backdrop for a mystery, though I can’t think of any specific examples.

    • Bryan – Those are good examples of the way professional sport can serve as a good context for a mystery. Your comment has also made me think of Dick Francis’ novels that feature horse racing. And there’s an Ellery Queen short story with the same context. And of course Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze. No doubt about it: sport contexts can be awfully effective!

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