Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The late Alison Gordon was a groundbreaking sports journalist, and paved the way for a lot of female sportswriters who came later. In fact, she was one of the first female journalists to be allowed into a Major League Baseball locker room. She left behind a legacy that included a mystery series featuring Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Let’s take a look at that series today, and turn the spotlight on the first novel, The Dead Pull Hitter.
The story begins with the return of the (American League) Toronto Titans from a series of away games. The team is preparing to host the Boston Red Sox for some games, and a lot of people think the Titans could win and make it to the playoffs. Against the odds, the Titans clinch the AL Eastern Division Championship, and are now poised to move on in the playoffs.
During the celebration after the key win, the news comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez, is dead, and his body found in his home. The initial police report is that he probably surprised a burglar. Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro is assigned to the case, and he and his team begin the investigation.
That evening, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered at the team’s clubhouse. One possibility is, of course, that the same person killed both victims. But as it turns out, Sanchez was blackmailing Thorson (among other people). So another very good possibility is that Thorson killed Sanchez, and was later murdered by someone else. In either case, it seems less and less likely that the first murder was a home invasion gone wrong.
Now Munro shifts his attention to the players and any other people who had access to the Titans’ clubhouse. Kate Henry, of course, is shaken by the murders, as many people are. But she also knows that this will be a very important baseball story, and she wants as much exclusive information as she can get. And on a personal note, she wants the person who killed these players to be caught. So she starts asking questions.
Munro depends on her for inside information on what’s going on with the team, and on the ‘behind the scenes’ relationships among the team members and staff. For her part, Henry wants the exclusive on the murder investigation. So they begin to work together, sometimes smoothly, sometimes very awkwardly. Matters are made more complicated because each sees the need to keep some information from the other. For Munro, it’s because it’s an active investigation. For Henry, it’s because she wants her story, and because she knows many of the people involved. In the end, though, the two get to the truth about these murders. And in the process, they uncover some secrets that certain people have been keeping.
The story takes place in a baseball context, and Gordon weaves a lot of information about the game and about the ‘baseball life’ into it. Readers get a good look at the game itself, at the personalities involved, and at ‘behind the scenes’ things such as player trades, decisions about who will play and why, and so on. There’s also a look at the way players interact with the press and the fans, and the difference between that and the way they are when the cameras are off.
The story takes place mostly in Toronto, so this is a distinctly Canadian novel. And Gordon places the reader there quite clearly. Besides giving the novel a sense of that setting, the Canadian context also gives a different perspective on what many people think of as a US game.
Since Kate Henry is a sports journalist, readers also get a look at what it’s like to travel with a team, get copy for stories, file reports, work with other members of the press, and so on. One of the elements that comes through here is the relationship that players and other team members have with the press. On the one hand, it’s a symbiosis, so each side knows it’s in everyone’s best interest to get along. On the other hand, it’s not always an easy relationship. Members of the press have to earn the trust of the players.
The story is told in first person, from Henry’s perspective. So we learn quite a bit about her. She’s single, having split from her former partner Michael. But she hardly wallows in that loss. She loves her job, and is good at it. She’s deeply knowledgeable about baseball, but doesn’t obsess about the game. She’s capable and bright, but not without flaws. Readers who prefer protagonists who are imperfect but quite functional will appreciate Kate Henry.
The solution is a sad one, and Gordon doesn’t make light of the sorrow and loss caused by the two murders. But this isn’t a bleak story. In fact, there’s a solid sense of wit that runs through it. For instance, at one point, Henry and Munro are talking about Constable Donald MacPherson, who’s been assigned to escort Henry as a security precaution. Here’s what happens when she refers to him as ‘Constable Donny:’
‘‘Constable Donny?’ Munro did a slow take, then cracked up. ‘You call him Constable Donny?’
‘Not to his face.’
‘Well, he is a little earnest.’
‘Earnest? He’s an escapee from Leave it to Beaver.’’
And in another scene, Henry is getting some information for a sidebar story about the Titans’ odds of winning. For that, she calls an acquaintance in Las Vegas. When the conversation ends, she thanks him:
‘‘Listen, thanks a lot, Jerry.’
I wondered if estate lawyers say, ‘Will do,’ a lot.’
There are also some wry observations about the world of baseball and baseball players.
The Dead Pull Hitter is a whodunit sort of mystery with a solid baseball theme, set in a uniquely Canadian context. It introduces a sleuth with a deep knowledge of the game and a strong connection to Canada. It’s also got a solid sense of sometimes-wry wit. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dead Pull Hitter? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 4 January/Tuesday 5 January – A Time to Kill – John Grisham
Monday 11 January/Tuesday 12 January – Dead Before Morning – Geraldine Evans
Monday 18 January/Tuesday 19 January – The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake