Ah, 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.