It’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.