We’re For Our Team, Yeah*

team-membersHave 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.


Filed under Alison Gordon, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Daniell, Megan Abbott, Reginald Hill

17 responses to “We’re For Our Team, Yeah*

  1. I read this straight after return from a minor ‘copycat-hunt’. Background-Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sam4lq2WHos

    I agree with you, as usual. Still I have that reminder spinning in my mind: ‘Don’t imitate someone else’s potential, indulge and develop your own!’

    Hence for me it would mean: There was a murder in a Blood Bowl (simplified: fantasy football) team, and now an outsider-investigator has to meddle into those disparate groups and team-spirits. It won’t be easy, as the threat of racism, the suspicion of a competing team hiring assassins, and the egos of the quite eager-to-brawl players are all obstacles in their own right…

    Thanks, for allowing me to learn from you, Margot.

  2. Margot: I think there are actually fewer mysteries involving sports teams than would be expected considering the prevalence of team sports, especially in North America. I believe it is because relatively few authors I know are or were involved in team sports. It takes a lot of knowledge to write about a sport in a meaningful way and I can understand why authors shy from “team” based mysteries.

    As well books involving sports, to be realistic, need to use sports language which may be obscure to many. A current example is Double Switch by Nick Taylor writing as T.T. Monday. The title is meaningful to a baseball fan but not to those not versed in the game.

    I would like to see more “team” themed crime fiction but doubt it will happen.

    • You make a really interesting point, Bill, about both knowledge and language. If the author’s going to write about a particular sport, then of course, s/he needs to have a lot of knowledge about that sport. There’s also the trick of conveying that knowledge to readers without ‘information dump.’ The author also has to use sports language appropriately, which implies knowing it well enough to do that. So you’re right; it’s not easy. Perhaps that really is the reason for which there aren’t more books about teams.

  3. Col

    I have Matthew F. Jones – The Elements of Hitting on the shelves. Maybe not strictly crime, but it features a troubled guy who in dealing with life’s troubles starts coaching a little league baseball team.

  4. In Dorothy L Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, the ad agency office has a cricket team. Lord Peter plays for the team with his ‘distinctive late cut’ – but then he observes one of his team-mates achieving a particularly good piece of play – and he is quite sad that that helps him solve the mystery, he sees who must have committed the murder. I think that must be close to unique as a way of solving a crime.

    • That cricket team plot point really is effective in that novel, isn’t it, Moira? And I think you’re right about how unusual that clue really is. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in a crime novel.

  5. kathyd

    I don’t usually read books with teams in them, but one exception that stands out is Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. It focuses on the 1981 rugby games in New Zealand where South Africa’s Springbok team visited and it set off a national anti-apartheid campaign.
    This was a fascinating book to me who knew nothing about that tour or the political protests against apartheid in New Zealand. The writer did an excellent job of explaining the issues, including police brutality, but also the intensity of rugby and its fans.

    • I agree about Cross Fingers, Kathy. Not only does Richardson bring rugby alive, but she also provides fascinating background on New Zealand of that time (and of modern times).

  6. Margot, I have enjoyed reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith novels set around cricket. Wodehouse, himself, was a great fan of the game and named his most famous character, Jeeves, after an English cricketer.

    • Ah, yes, of course, Prashant. And I wish I knew a little more about cricket. It’s not a game I know very well. Of course, Wodehouse’s novels are a pleasure in and of themselves, too.

  7. Firemen could fall into this category, too.

    My husband loves to fish; he watches all the fishing shows and gets out there every chance he gets. The fish-of-the-week gets bigger and bigger each time he tells “the fishing story” and it got me thinking about writing a story about a national tournament where one contestant is picking off the others. Your post has given me even more ideas. Now all I need is to find the time to plan it while I finish writing my two sequels. Thanks, Margot.

    • That’s an interesting plot line, Sue. And in a fishing tournament, there are so many possibilities for murder methods and for tension and complications. I can see it, and I’ll bet you’ll do a great job with the plot.

  8. I do want to read that book by Alison Gordon. I am currently reading the first Myron Bolitar book by Harlan Coben. Sports related but not a lot of team related stuff in this one.

    • Those early Coben/Bolitar books are solid reads, Tracy; I hope you’ll be glad you read that one. And I think Alison Gordon’s series is terrific – highly recommended. Even if one’s not a big sports fan, there are solid stories there.

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