Have you ever played on a sports team? Oh, not necessarily a professional team. But perhaps you played football (no matter how you define that term), baseball, rugby or hockey in school. Or you might have played for a local club. If you did (or still do), then you know that there’s a unique relationship among the players on a team. They share the wins and losses, of course. But they also share a certain kind of intimacy that goes beyond that. And that’s the way coaches like it, since the best teams work together and support each other.
That team relationship can make for a really effective context for a crime novel, if you think about it. For one thing, there’s a disparate group of people who have to live at close quarters with each other. And that (plus the competition) can make for all sorts of effective conflict and tension. For another, team members often know things about each other that friends and families may not. So they’re often useful sources of information and good repositories of all sorts of secrets. Here are just a few examples of how the team dynamic can work in crime fiction. I’ll bet you’ll know of dozens more than I could remember.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, Sherlock Holmes gets an ‘inside view’ of a rugby team. Cambridge’s rugby coach, Cyril Overton, comes to Holmes with the news that his three-quarter, Godfrey Staunton, has gone missing. Of course Overton is concerned about the young man’s well-being. Beyond that, Cambridge is to face Oxford in a match the next day, and there’s little chance of Cambridge winning if Staunton doesn’t play. Holmes agrees to take the case, and starts to trace Staunton’s movements. Overton, of course, consults with Staunton’s teammates, but gets no help there. And other leads aren’t helpful, either. It’s not until Holmes makes sense of a cryptic telegram and a scent-dog that we learn what really happened to Staunton.
The first of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series, A Clubbable Woman, has a rugby club as its focal point. One day, veteran player Sam Cannon is badly roughed up during a match, and suffers a concussion. He goes home and falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes, he finds that his wife, Mary, has been bludgeoned to death. As you might expect, Sam himself is the most likely suspect in her murder. But he claims to be innocent. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to look into the matter, they find out that the key to this mystery lies with the rugby club. Once they untangle the network of relationships, and the backgrounds of the team members, they learn the truth.
As Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter begins, Toronto sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry is returning to Toronto with the (American League) Toronto Titans baseball team. They’re about to host the Boston Red Sox for an important series of games that could get them into the championship series. After one key win, everyone’s celebrating when word comes that one of the players, Pedro Jorge ‘Sultan’ Sanchez, is dead, and his body’s been found in his home. On the surface, it looks as though Sanchez surprised a burglar, and Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro and his team begin their investigation. Then, another player, Steve Thorson, is murdered. Now, Munro changes the focus of the investigation to the members of the team. And he and Henry find that they can be of help to each other. She can provide him with inside information on the team members, their interactions, and so on. And he can give her exclusive information on one of the most important baseball stories she’s written. It turns out that things happening on the team play a major role in the case.
In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, we are introduced to Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy. They’ve been best friends for a very long time, with Addy serving as Beth’s trusty lieutenant. Now, Beth is captain of the cheerleading squad, and Addy is still her second-in-command. Together, they rule the school as the saying goes. That is, until the new cheerleading coach, Collette French, starts working with them. Before long, the other girls on the squad, including Addy, are drawn into the new coach’s world, and form a tightly-knit group. Beth, who’s been more or less left out of this new social group, naturally resents both the exclusion and her loss of power as the cheerleaders’ ‘queen bee.’ Addy, though, feels the ‘pull’ of the new coach and of the group of other cheerleaders who spend time with her. Everything changes for Addy when there’s a suicide – or is it? Among other things, this novel explores the intensity of teammate relationships, and the different (and not always) healthy forms they take.
And then there’s John Daniell’ The Fixer. In this novel, we meet Mark Stevens, who was one of the (New Zealand) All Blacks’ stars during his best playing years. Now that he’s getting a little older and closer to the end of his career, he’s taken a job with a French rugby club where the pay is good, and he can ensure that he’ll retire comfortably. Things go well until he meets Brazilian journalist Rachel da Silva. She’s in France to do a story on rugby for her magazine, and wants to do an in-depth piece. She wants Stevens to help her meet the other players and, of course, to give her his perspective. It’s not long before they’re in a relationship, but it turns out to be much more than Stevens bargained for originally. Rachel slowly convinces him that he can make a lot of money betting on matches. Then it becomes hints about fixing matches. And it’s not just a matter of his sense of ethics, either. The stakes get very high when his family back in New Zealand are threatened. One of the important plot lines in this novel is the set of relationships among the players in the club. They have a unique kind of a bond; and, in a way, that’s a big part of the problem for Stevens as he starts to walk a very blurred ethical line.
Teammates really do know each other in ways that lots of other people don’t. That relationship can get intense, and there can even be conflict (or worse). But that sense of team identity is part of what wins games.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Our Team.