January Magazine's continuing series of guides to the best in crime fiction's subgenres
It's not uncommon for avid readers to go off on thematic jags. A book borrowed from a friend, purchased on a whim, or found while vacationing at some bed-and-breakfast can spark a brief but torrid affair with a newly discovered subgenre. I've devoured drug-dealer mysteries set in Miami in order to enliven visits to tamer parts of Florida; made repeated forays through a winter snowstorm to satisfy a sudden obsession with vintage British cozies; and stayed up night after night reading a succession of cold, violent cyberpunk novels, some brilliant, some merely unpleasant.
In hopes of introducing January readers to the wide range of crime fiction subgenres, both familiar and peculiar, I'll be writing occasional "Five of a Kind" pieces. Each one will examine a different theme and suggest five books to get you started in your exploration of that theme.
First up to bat: baseball-oriented mysteries.
America's favorite pastime has inspired everything from Broadway musicals (Damn Yankees) to a recent episode of The X-Files in which Agent Fox Mulder discovers the secret of the baseball greats (they were really aliens in disguise!).
Crime fiction boasts its own powerful line-up of works dealing with the baseball theme. Although most of these books have been written over the past 40 years, they may be set in times long before World War II, and in places as diverse as New York City, Detroit, and Chicago. A few are major-league contenders, while others should never have been allowed onto the field. Since we're in the midst of the 1999 baseball season, now seems a fine time to scout the most promising players:
1. My favorite baseball mystery has to be Richard Rosen's Strike Three, You're Dead (1984). You needn't be a baseball fan to appreciate this Edgar Award winner, the first book in Rosen's respected series about centerfielder-turned-detective Harvey Blissberg. I was charmed by the authenticity of Strike Three, right from the first page of the book, which lists the roster for the Providence (Rhode Island) Jewels, from owner and president Marshall Levy to pitcher Marcus Marlette, from Lumpkin, Georgia. In the novel, relief pitcher Rudy Furth (Blissberg's former roommate) goes from defeat on the mound to death in the clubhouse whirlpool. When gossip blames this crime on underworld connections, Blissberg turns sleuth, risking his career -- not to mention his life -- to clear his late friend's reputation.
2. While I didn't expect to find Nero Wolfe hanging out at the ballpark, a bag of roasted peanuts in hand, I was a bit surprised that only one of the great fictional detectives appears to have investigated a ballpark crime. In Robert B. Parker's Mortal Stakes (1975), Boston P.I. Spenser is called in when a blackmailer threatens Red Sox star pitcher Marty Rabb and his wife Linda. Spenser finds himself playing a tight game with some hard hitters who have dug up something ugly about Linda's past, and may be using it to make Marty throw games.
3. The Final Detail, due out in June from Delacorte, is the latest in Harlan Coben's acclaimed series about Myron Bolitar, a former basketball player turned sports agent. In this new book, the engaging Bolitar investigates the death of baseball great Clu Haid, whose pitching comeback has been cut short -- first by allegations of heroin use and, finally, by murder. Bolitar gets involved when his business partner, Esperanza Diaz, is arrested and charged in connection with Haid's death. Coben, whose Fade Away won the 1997 Edgar Award (Best Original Paperback), has a reputation for building intriguing plots that keep readers on their toes.
4. When it comes to trivia and detail, the undisputed veterans of the baseball mystery world are authors Troy Soos and Crabbe Evers. They are doing for regional ball teams what Lillian Jackson Braun has done for cats and Sue Grafton for the alphabet. The most recent of Soos' baseball mysteries (all of them set in the 1920s) is The Cincinnati Red Stalkings (1998). Utility infielder Mickey Rawlings gets caught up with an eccentric fan, Oliver Perriman, who is developing a public exhibit on the glorious history of the home team in order to help the Reds recover from their dubious 1919 World Series "victory" over the scandalized Chicago White Sox. Rawlings throws down his bat and picks up the role of private investigator when someone murders Perriman at the ballpark.
5. Finally, Crabbe Evers (a pseudonym used by Chicagoans William Brashler and Reinder Van Til) writes a snappy, trivia-filled contemporary series about the amateur investigations of retired sportswriter Duffy House. Tigers Burning (1994) finds House in Detroit. His client is a sportscaster whose support for a fans' movement to preserve the landmark Tiger Stadium has cost him his job. The historic stadium catches fire, a Detroit socialite is murdered, and one of the Tigers' stars turns out to have been involved in an affair with the murder victim. The bases are full of trouble in the form of modern bad guys -- money-hungry developers, the mob, team management, and local politicians. There's not much depth to Evers' infield (or to his plots, at times), but he delivers plenty of action.
Here are a few more from the crime-fiction bench:
Murder at the Baseball Hall of Fame, by David Daniel and Chris Carpenter (1996). An ex-cop visiting the Cooperstown, Ohio, Hall of Fame witnesses the death of a former baseball star.
Drover and the Designated Hitter, by Bill Granger (1994). A sportswriter-turned-sleuth investigates after someone tries to kill a baseball powerhitter who was hoping to be traded.
The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson, by Donald Honig (1992). A New York sportswriter uncovers a scheme to assassinate the first black player in the major leagues.
Five O'clock Lightning, by William L. Deandrea (1982). A McCarthyite politician dedicated to getting the Commies out of sports is murdered during a 1950s game at Yankee Stadium.
A Handy Death, by Robert L. Fish and Henry Rothblatt (1973). A former New York Mets star, sentenced to prison for shooting a man, incites a riot during a prison yard ballgame.
Knave of Eagles, by Robert Wade (1969). Mystery surrounds a big-league pitcher's decision to return home to Cuba, abandoning his team during the annual pennant race. | May 1999
KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.