Anyone For Tennis*

TennisAh, tennis! For many years it was one of those genteel sports, where players and coaches were supposed to behave politely. But if you’ve ever played tennis, you know that it can be extremely competitive. And for those with real talent, the international tennis circuit can be lucrative, so there’s a lot at stake.

With all of that competitiveness and money (not to mention the fame) on the line, it shouldn’t be surprising that tennis features in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage, we are introduced to Frank Dorrance and his fiancée, Brenda White. Frank has made it clear that his main purpose in marrying Brenda is access to the money she will inherit if they marry. But Frank has a rival, Hugh Rowlands, an impoverished solicitor who’s genuinely in love with Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, where Frank manages to alienate just about everyone there. When it’s over, they leave the court. After the party, Brenda finds her fiancé murdered on the same court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s very little evidence to suggest how and by whom he might have been killed. But there’s no lack of suspects, as the victim was arrogant and obnoxious, and had made many enemies. Dr. Gideon Fell gets involved in the case, and finds that he has to clear both Hugh and Brenda, since both had motives.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories involve tennis. In Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is an avid tennis player. She’s a new student at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school, and soon makes friends with another new student, Julia Upjohn, and both enjoy their shared interest in tennis. Late one night, the school’s games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot in the new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Julia’s mother happens to be friends with Maureen Summerhayes, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, whom fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead will remember. When she finds an important clue to the murder, Julia uses that connection to visit Poirot. He returns with her to Meadowbank, and investigates the events there.  You’re absolutely right, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and of Evil Under the Sun.

In Harlan Coben’s Drop Shot, sports agent Myron Bolitar and his friend, Win Lockwood, are attending a U.S. Open tennis event, where Bolitar’s client, Duane Richwood, is competing. Richwood is an up-and-coming tennis star from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, ready to take the tennis world by storm, as the saying goes. During the game, Bolitar and Lockwood head to the food court outside the stadium, where they discover the body of former tennis great Valerie Simpson. For a number of reasons, Bolitar has an interest in finding out who killed the victim. First, it’s possible that his client might have known her. If there is a connection between the two, then Richwood could be a suspect. Second, Bolitar himself had been getting calls from Simpson, who wanted to resurrect her career. And it turns out that Lockwood referred her to him. With all of these connections hitting close to home, Bolitar decides to find out the truth behind the murder.

There’s a tennis angle in Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, too. Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara met in a Michigan prison, where both were serving time for stealing cars. They’ve become friends, and have decided to join forces to plan a potentially very lucrative crime. They’re going to kidnap Margaret ‘Mickey’ Dawson, wife of wealthy Detroit developer Frank Dawson. He’s in a position to pay a large ransom, and Robbie and Gara don’t think they’ll have any trouble from Mickey. She’s a devoted wife, and dedicated ‘tennis mum’ to thirteen-year-old Bo, who’s shown real talent on the court. But this plan soon goes wrong. First, Dawson has little interest in paying ransom. He’s got a girlfriend in the Bahamas, and was planning to divorce his wife, anyway.  There are other complications, too (no spoilers here!). As the novel goes on, we see that Mickey comes into her own, showing herself to be far from the ‘meek little housewife’ she seems to be at first. Among other things, this novel gives readers a peek at the perspective of the ‘sports parent.’

Many people know H.R.F. Keating best from his Inspector Ganesh Ghote novels. But he wrote several other novels too, including a series featuring Detective Superintendent Harriet Martens of the Greater Birchester Police. In one plot thread of A Detective in Love, the second in that series, Martens is seconded to the Leven Vales Police when U.K. tennis star Bubbles Xingara is stabbed to death during a morning training run. The victim was top-seeded at Wimbledon, so there’s more than just possible personal angle to this murder. What’s more, her fame and her reputation as a ‘media darling’ means that this case is going to get international exposure. So Martens will have to do everything right.

I don’t think I could do a post on tennis in crime fiction without making reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. As fans of the film will know, Hitchcock turns Guy Haines from an architect (his profession in the novel) to a professional tennis player. And there’s a very famous scene in the film that takes place at a tennis match in which Haines competes. Those who know the film will know exactly which scene I mean. If you haven’t seen this adaptation, I recommend it. But then, I admit to bias, as I like Hitchcock’s work very much.

See what I mean? Tennis seems like such a civil sort of game, where everyone is well-behaved. But under the surface? Hmm…. I’m not so sure.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Cream.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, H.R.F. Keating, Harlan Coben, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Highsmith

37 responses to “Anyone For Tennis*

  1. What a timely post Margot and I don’t know how you managed to come up with so many crime fiction novels featuring tennis, if asked I don’t think I could name one!

  2. Ah, the perfect post to help me recover from poor Andy’s disappointment! When I think of tennis and crime, definitely Strangers On a Train springs to Mind. But so does The Murder at the Vicarage – not because tennis played such a huge role in the story, but because of the fantastic Tom Adams covers that were on the books when I was first collecting them in my youth. For The Murder at the Vicarage, we have the clothes of a vicar, but the head has been replaced by a tennis racquet.

    • Yes, I was thinking about you (and Andy’s disappointment), FictionFan, when I was writing this post. And thank you for reminding us of Tom Adams’ great covers. What artwork! And I do like the tennis racquet – quite well done. Folks, here it is if you’re interested.

  3. I just read Georgette Heyer’s Detection Unlimited – a classic village mystery of the 1950s. All the local notables are involved in an afternoon tennis party, which takes up the opening chapters of the book. When a dead body is found later, it becomes vital to establish who left when, who wasn’t playing for a vital period of time, who went home together, who took the shortcut…

    • Ooh, that’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post, Moira! Thank you. And that’s a Heyer, I admit, that I’ve not read. I do like that set-up, where you have to remember and go through everyone’s alibi…

  4. Fortunately (or not?) I grew up playing baseball and was pretty da** good at it as a catcher. Due to circumstances beyond my control, things didn’t work out. Later, I tried playing tennis. My (then) wife and I bought rackets and “played” on a free local court. I gave it up after launching several balls who knows how many feet over the pine trees surrounding the court. I then began coaching youth league baseball to fulfill the empty place that destiny had placed in my heart. But hey, I was GOOD for the tennis ball industry for a short while! 🙂

    • Sounds like you had quite the experience playing tennis, Michael! Don’t tell anyone, please, but I’m not any good at tennis, either. I didn’t know you were a baseball player; it’s great that you used your talent to help kids learn to play. Baseball is one of those things that’s just woven into the North American culture…

  5. Hmmmm. I think I will stick to baseball though it is hardly safer in crime fiction.

  6. Great to see the Carr get a mention – and of course there those mysteries set in the tennis world credited to Ilie Nastase (but probably ghosted by Walter J Sheldon, or some such professional scribe)

  7. Col

    I don’t think I’ve read that particular Coben yet. The Elmore Leonard – yes, but I couldn’t for the life of me recall the plot. Envious of your legendary powers of recall!

  8. I would have not thought about tennis and crime fiction in the same sentence, but they do make for strange bedfellows Margot. A gentle-minded sport that can become savage under the surface.

    • Well-put, Mason! That’s exactly what it is: A gentle-minded sport that can become savage under the surface. And it’s interesting how tennis brings all sorts of people together, too. And that makes for even more good possibilities for a story.

  9. I remember the sports pavilion murder. 🙂 It was a nice backdrop for the crime in the book. Actually, I thought Christie did an especially good job bringing that book, and its settings, to life.

    And good topic at the close of the French open!

  10. A whole new box to unopen for you. Various sports in mysteries. Dicdk Francis would be a treasure trove. Just resaw STRANGERS and that scene stands out.

    • There you go, Patti! And you’re right; Dick Francis wrote some great sports mysteries. I agree, too, about that tennis scene from Strangers on a Train. It really is memorable.

  11. Margot, I used to watch all four Grand Slams live on television. But now, thanks to reading, writing, blogging, and social media, I rarely watch sports anymore. Except for chess, of course. I love the game.

  12. I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery with a tennis-playing character, at least not one I remember. Are there any football mysteries out there? I’d like those better.

  13. I don’t think I’ve read a crime novel that featured a tennis player. But I did read one that used the tennis court as a creepy place of torture. It worked really well, too.

  14. Margot – Your post brought back a memory of a time we got tickets to the US Open. It was an early round and the players were not well known. But it was a beautiful day and the seats were good. In front of us in the great seats, a man in a peach-color sport jacket stood up between sets. It was Donald Trump.

    • Really, Elgin? What a story! It really is a small world, isn’t it? And I am glad you got the chance to see the U.S. Open; that in itself must have been spectacular.

  15. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…6/14/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  16. Very interesting post, Margot, and great suggestions in the comments too. I know little about tennis, but I would not mind reading more about it in mysteries. I had forgotten at Murder at the Vicarage.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And you’re absolutely right about the comments; I always learn so very much from the people like yourself who visit my blog. I think perhaps Agatha Christie enjoyed tennis, or at least watching it; there are several references to the game in her works.

  17. dschedin333

    I love tennis and this concept!

  18. great post!! check out mine about Roger Federer in my blog 😉

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