I always very much enjoy Martin’s introductions to these British Library Classic Crime reprints and this one was no different. Martin begins by looking at the long association ‘of sports and games with stories of crime and detection,’ before commenting on how ‘this collection also shines a light on the part played by sport in British life, and the way that sport, as well as wider society, has changed over the years.’ The rise of the professional and well-paid sports player is one such change. The introduction also includes examples of sporting crime scenes from mystery novels by writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Henry Wade and Dick Francis. Though my attention was particularly drawn to the fact that there is a mystery novel in which a murderer tries to bump someone off with an exploding gold course…
The ways in which sport features in this collection of stories is wide ranging, cropping up in unexpected circumstances at times, and a reader who is not a natural enthusiast of the world of sports, does not need to fear that they are at a disadvantage.
The Loss of Sammy Crockett (1894) by Arthur Morrison
The opening story comes from one of the many writers who saw a gap in the market when Doyle killed off his famous creation. For the next decade Morrison produced stories for The Strand magazine featuring the private investigator Martin Hewitt. In this tale Hewitt is drawn into investigating the disappearance of a young runner. The circumstances suggest he left of his own volition, but why? Was he lured away by affairs of the heart, or has a rival competitor tried to eliminate the opposition? Morrison makes good use of some fragments of a letter, as the words have more than one interpretation, though a number of things that Hewitt sees or hears are withheld from the reader.
The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter (1904) by Arthur Conan Doyle
This was a re-read for me, though my memories were fairly foggy, so I couldn’t remember too much. Doyle was quite a fan of sports such as boxing, golf and cricket and he even participated in the last two. This tale is the ‘only case in the canon which directly involves amateur sport’ and Holmes is tasked with finding a missing Cambridge college rugby player called Godfrey Staunton, who is needed for an important match the next day, against Oxford. Like the previous story he seems to have left his lodgings under his own steam, but why? Doyle draws some interesting characters in this story, who despite hostile exteriors may be more kindly intentioned underneath.
The Double Problem (1922) by F. A. M. Webster
Webster, or to give his full name Frederick Annesley Michael Webster, is one of the writers in this collection who was a sportsman, as well as a writer and his particular strengths were in javelin and cycling. This story contains his series investigator Old Ebbie Entwistle, a chemist, turned amateur sleuth, who also has a Watson to record his cases. At the start of the tale Entwistle is asked by an Oxford college dean to solve the mystery of a dud cheque, which has been used at a local jeweller’s shop. Although he is soon asked by another person to trace the theft of a list of names of men to be awarded a Blue in a particular sport. Are the two cases connected? The rise of the professional sports player and the increase in betting on sporting events are both themes commented on in this story and it did make me laugh at one point when a hammer thrower is seen in a negative light because he decides to grow a beard? Apparently this is an un-team-like action. Who knew? It is interesting to see how both parts of the story intertwine and if you are paying attention the narrative contains a fair number of clues to piece together.
Fisherman’s Luck (1925) by J. Jefferson Farjeon
This is an angling mystery, as the title suggests, though Farjeon was also a cricket fan. The tale includes his series character Detective X Crook who is called to a rural fishing spot, where a young woman has asked him to trace her brother. All she has is an anguished sounding letter, and she fears he may have committed suicide. Yet she cannot think why he would. Crook however soon unravels the mystery and I think the reader will be able to anticipate the ending before they arrive at it.
The Football Photograph (1930) by H. C. Bailey
Reggie gets out of a holiday to rural Scotland with his wife when he is called into investigate a burglary and murder at a traditional and long-standing West End jewellery shop – Durfrey and Killigrew. The porter has been murdered, yet the circumstances are very fishy. Fortune must have had his weetabix for breakfast that morning, as it is not long until he develops a theory about what has occurred. It doesn’t even take him and the police long to find the suspect – but can their guilt be proven? The chain of events in this narrative are interesting to follow, as are the legal twists.
The Red Golf Ball (1939) by Gerald Verner
Verner was a prolific crime thriller writer whose real name was John Robert Stuart Pringle. He had many pennames and also often reused material, as this story was originally a horse racing themed one entitled ‘The Jockey’ (1937). Dramatist Trevor Lowe, one of his amateur series sleuths, is having a break after some busy days preparing for the opening of his latest West End production. He is having a round of golf with a Colonel Grayling. Yet the game is abandoned when Grayling discovers a dead body in the undergrowth when looking for his ball. The victim is another club member, who has been murdered. An initialled red coloured golf ball points the finger at another member of the club. But are they just a scape goat? Unfortunately the thing which points to the killer is completely withheld from the reader until the end of the story, so the reader cannot work it out ahead of time.
The Boat Race Murder by David Winser
Winser was only 29 when he died, killed in action during WW2, but he packed a lot into his few years. He was a rowing Blue at Oxford; an award-winning poet and he became a doctor after studying at Yale University. He also wrote 5 novels. This story ‘benefits from his first-hand experience of rowing in the Boat Race…’ The story is narrated by a cox on one of the rowing teams. As a party unfolds, he tells us how another team member is being replaced; a decision no one is happy about. So when the replacement dies during rowing practice the next day, it is not long until murder is suspected… I found the ending to this one unusual, as I had not expected such a dark tone.
The Swimming Gala (1952) by Gladys Mitchell
Mitchell was another fan of sports in real life and she ‘taught games and coached pupils in hurdling. Her interest in athletics led to her becoming a member of the British Olympics Association.’ The story begins with a bold opening line: ‘When it all came out at the trial there was no doubt the murder had been planned’ and the mystery is narrated by a Mayor. He explains how his local public baths appointed a brother and sister as deputy superintendents. Yet scandalous comments soon begin to be made about the pair… The swimming gala approaches and unsurprisingly murder occurs. This is a very short story and it is not one in which you are given the facts so you can work it out yourself. Instead the narrator simply tells you the solution. I would say this is the weakest story in the collection.
The Case of the Man in the Squared Circle (1944) by Ernest Dudley
Dudley’s real name was Ernest Coltman Allen. He was another person who must have never slept given how many things he accomplished, though he did die when he was 97. He was ‘one of the world’s oldest marathon runners’ and he also took part in acting, writing, journalism, TV presenting, dancing and song writing, to name but a few. His story is a boxing themed mystery, featuring his most well-known sleuth Doctor Morelle, accompanied by his assistant Miss Frayle. In keeping with other stories I have read featuring him, he has a fairly low opinion of her intelligence. He is going to do some research on hedonism and so plans to take her around to cinemas, theatres, night clubs and boxing matches. She’s quite pleased by all of this and even seems to take on the chin her employer’s comment that she is ‘typical of the more cretinous section of the public.’ Anyways to the boxing match, it is rather late in the day when a boxing match promoter/manager is knifed in the back. Despite the long runup to the crime, Morelle deftly solves the case pretty much in a paragraph.
I, Said the Sparrow by Leo Bruce
Bruce’s tale features his delightful sleuth, Sergeant Beef and I have learnt a new word: Toxophily, which means the love of archery. Beef is asked for advice by a police acquaintance about a case they are dealing with, involving the president of an archery club who seems to have been shot through the mouth with an arrow. Like Morelle it takes Beef a mere phone call to find the solution and looking at the story as a whole I think it would have been better used as the premise or opening gambit of a full-length mystery novel.
Four to One – Bar One by Henry Wade
This story focuses on the betting surrounding horse racing and the bookmakers who hope to make a profit from it. Yet a cloud appears on the horizon for certain bookies, who find themselves victims of a race gang. But one bookmaker decides he will take matters into his own hands… The ending is an unusual one for Wade, though perhaps it is in keeping with his early, less orthodox work.
Death at the Wicket by Bernard Newman
Not only was Newman the great nephew of George Eliot but he also met Adolf Hitler and President Roosevelt. He was a prolific writer in the Verner vein and also a passionate cyclist. But this is actually a cricket themed story. The narrator is invited to play at a country house cricket match and brings along a friend, Papa Pontivy, a famous French spy catcher. Naturally this becomes a busman’s holiday for Pontivy when a rival cricketeer dies on the pitch, and a bowler is detained for manslaughter. But was their ball what killed him? Pontivy is not convinced… The reader will have no problem identifying the killer, though the ‘how’ of the case is less predictable.
The Wimbledon Mystery by Julian Symons
Private detective Francis Quarles is faced with an unusual problem when famous tennis player Jimmy Clayton goes into the dressing room, but never comes out. How did he leave undetected? Tied up with this disappearance is another vanishing act, this time his soon-to-be father in law. Given that this story was written in the 50s you will not be surprised that counter espionage soon enters the case and Quarles has to grapple with the idea that maybe both or one of them has defected to Russia. As a detective Quarles does not rush into making lots of discoveries and plays more of a background role, before emerging more fully at the end. The disappearance of the tennis player has more than one solution, which I think Symons uses well here. I was quite chuffed I managed to suspect the right person.
The Drop Shot (1950) by Michael Gilbert
Gilbert’s story is set at a county championship squash match, yet the narrative soon flashbacks to an earlier match one of the players took part in; a match they intended to use as a way of gaining their inheritance sooner than expected. In the Mitchell vein, this is a mystery which tells rather than shows, yet Gilbert produces a good sting in the tail at the end.
Dangerous Sport (1976) by Celia Fremlin
Fremlin is one of my favourite authors, so it should come as no surprise that her story was my favourite in the collection. The story is in the third person but is structured around the experiences of a woman named Stella, who is fed up with her married lover. Realising that he is lying to her, but knowing she cannot openly anger him, she decides to play psychological games with him, to reel him back. But will she push him too far? Fremlin unfolds the concept deftly in a small number of pages and concludes her tale with a chilling pain. I think she is one of those rare writers who is strong at both writing novels and short stories.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)