A Yank Looks at Cricket and the Mystery Story
Until my second trip to Great Britain, in May 2003, I had never seen a cricket match. My previous visit was in autumn, when cricket isn’t played. Because of weather and a busy schedule, I unfortunately did not see live cricket this time but did see portions of two matches on television: a test match between England and Zimbabwe and a one-day county match between Somerset and Sussex. Yet, thirty years ago something impelled me to write an article about cricket and mysteries that appeared in the February 1975 issue of The Armchair Detective. Perhaps some deep-seated, previously-unrecognized, strain of Anglophilism had attracted this native of the Bronx, New York, to this most British of games. Once I began to conjure up visions of peaceful, green cricket pitches in the English countryside, I knew I was ‘hooked’. The article you are reading is a considerably revised and updated version of my original article for TAD.
Cricket, like other national pastimes, is played on many levels. It has similarities to baseball, of which it seems to be the forerunner, despite the legend of baseball springing fullblown from the brain of General Abner Doubleday in 1839. Many English schoolchildren learn the game at an early age. Josephine Bell’s Death at Half Term (1939; U.S. title: Curtain Call for a Corpse, 1965) deals with school theatricals, cricket and murder. An English school is also the setting in Clifford Witting’s A Bullet for Rhino (1950), with cricket playing an important role during the traditional “Old Boys’ Celebration”.
Another tradition is the annual parents’ match, pitting the fathers against the students in Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof (1935). Though a student has been strangled shortly before the game is due to be played, the headmaster decides it is not in the best interests of the school to cancel the fixture. Some of the fathers take things seriously, and “Major Fairweather at square leg held a low, hard catch — a shot which any right-thinking father would have allowed to pass to the boundary.” The game, which proves close and exciting, is interrupted by another murder.
A tradition is also involved at the girls’ school depicted in Nancy Spain’s Death Before Wicket (1946). Annually, a team composed of the fathers of the students plays a game against the school’s First Eleven. There is relatively little description of this match though there is a good section on the girls’ fielding practice before the game. Miss Spain, like other English writers, including Herbert Adams, Helen Simpson, and John Creasey, combines several sports in one book. She starts with an excellent picture of a women’s steeplechase race at a small county track and moves on to an equally good observation of a women’s lacrosse match in Brighton. She then has tennis and golf before getting to cricket.
In Michael Gilbert’s The Night of the Twelfth (1976) there is a well-described prep school cricket match as well as apt cricket metaphors. The Israeli ambassador to England, target of terrorists, visits his son at the Trenchard House Preparatory School and, watching the cricket match, wonders, in a world of danger about this “lazy, enjoyable ritual which meant nothing and proved nothing. What was back of it? A refusal to look facts in the face, or a refusal to be frightened by them? Complacency or common sense?”
Ernest Bramah in “The Game Played in the Dark” (Max Carrados, 1914) has his blind sleuth devise a different metaphor for cricket. “This perpetual duel between the Law and the Criminal has sometimes appeared to me in the terms of a game of cricket, inspector. Law is the field; the Criminal at the wicket. If Law makes a mistake — sends down a loose ball or drops a catch — the Criminal scores a little or has another lease of life. But if he makes a mistake — if he lets a straight ball pass or spoons toward a steady man — he is done for. His mistakes are fatal; those of the Law are only temporary and retrievable.”
The outstanding cricketers of England and of former members of her Empire vie for the honour of representing their country in international matches called Test Matches which are spread over five days. Among the novels using these matches as background are Denzil Batchelor’s Test Match Murder (1936), Hal Pink’s The Test Match Mystery (1941), and Alfred Tack’s The Test Match Murder (1948). In the Julian Symons novelet “Test Match Murder” (Murder! Murder!, 1961), cricket fan Francis Quarles attends the England vs Australia match and becomes involved in solving the poisoning, during the traditional tea break, of hated umpire Charlie Bowerman.
Again it is England versus Australia in a Test Match at Lord’s in Testkill (1976) by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins, a book only published in the U.K. That is probably just as well because Jon L. Breen, an American who knows cricket, said it contains a great deal of cricket description that would be baffling to those who don’t know the sport. The example he gave from the book was “Hunt put the pressure on, bringing up third man and providing a suicidal silly mid-on.” The story is told through the eyes of Jack Stenton who, like Dexter, is a cricketer-turned-journalist. During the match, there is a murder, and it appears that the killer must be one of the players in the match. Breen found the characters unsympathetic and the solution one arrived at without detection and one that was hard to accept, with the killer’s motive explained by madness.
John Creasey was a great fan who viewed cricketers as “the heroes of the greatest of games”. His A Six for the Toff (1955) contains a good description of a crowd going to see Australia play England at London’s Oval. The Toff vows that “nothing in this world that he could prevent would stop him from seeing the first ball bowled in mortal combat.” However, an American client in danger involves him in jewel theft and murder and interrupts his viewing of the match. The situation (and language) is reminiscent of “Man Bites Dog” (Blue Book, June 1939; reprinted in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1940), wherein Ellery Queen is anxiety-ridden in Hollywood while the New York Giants and New York Yankees “are waging mortal combat to determine the baseball championship of the world.” Ellery flies to New York, but, predictably, murder at the ballpark prevents him from giving the game his undivided attention. However, both Queen and the Toff solve their respective crimes and then are able to devote their attention to what they consider the other serious matters of life.
The popularity of cricket, like the sun, never sets on those lands where British influence made itself felt. In H.R.F. Keating’s “Inspector Ghote and the Test Match” (EQMM, October 1969), 50,000 fans have jammed Bradbourne Stadium in Bombay to its capacity. Inspector Ghote would like to take his son to the match, but the only way he can get tickets is to accept an offer from a burglar.
In Jon Cleary’s Babylon South (1989) we learn from the portion of the book that takes place in 1966 that his series character, Scobie Malone, was then considered “Australia’s most promising fast bowler”. In the middle of an important case he gets leave to play for New South Wales in Hong Kong. The state police department thinks it good public relations to have him play. This experience of Malone, who was never picked to play for Australia, is described by Cleary as follows:
So Malone went to Hong Kong to play cricket in front of English ex-patriates who murmured “Good shot!” and “Well caught, sir!” while the other 99 per cent of the colony shuffled by and inscrutably scrutinized the white flannelled fools who played this foolish game while the end of the world, 1997, was only thirty-one years away. Malone who took fourteen wickets in the two matches played and, every decent fast bowler’s dream, retired two batsmen hurt, was as short-sighted and oblivious as any of the others fools. They all had their priorities right.
Cricket is also popular in the West Indies. A short story in T.S. Stribling’s Clues of the Caribbees (1930) is entitled “Cricket” and stresses the “Anglo-Saxon” values inherent in the game. However, cricket is played by blacks as well as whites. In C. St. John Sprigg’s The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935), set in the West Indies, a black man is a murder suspect until he proves his alibi: he was playing cricket when the crime was committed. The apartheid policies of the Republic of South Africa, which once prevented blacks from playing cricket for the national team, are important in Gideon’s Sport (1970), written by Creasey as “J.J. Marric”. In addition to dealing with crimes affecting the English Derby and the Wimbledon tennis matches, Gideon must counter expected violence from those protesting apartheid as South Africa plays a test match against England at Lord’s, another famous London cricket ground. In Andrew Garve’s Death and the Sky Above (1953), Wimbledon tennis and a Test Match (this time England v. India) are important.
In “Oracle of the Dead” by Peter Lovesey (EQMM, Mid-December 1988) David is pleasantly surprised to find cricket being played on the Greek island of Corfu when he visits it on his honeymoon. It is a carryover from British rule over Corfu more than a century before. His wife, Helen, is dismayed when David is recruited to play. “Cricket took up every Saturday and Sunday in summer. If he wasn’t playing for the local team, he was off to a one-day match at the Oval. She’d been hoping that marriage would wean him away from the silly game.”
Another marriage seems doomed by a young bride-to-be’s dislike of cricket in Bland Beginning (1949) by Julian Symons. “... the serious difference between them — the yawning gap which made their suggested marriage certain, in a mixture of metaphor, to land on the rocks — touched the question of sport in general, and in particular cricket. Victoria, her friends explained, was opposed on principle (they might have been hard put to it to say what principle) to all games, and particularly to those played with bat and ball; and if there was one game she regarded with more distaste than another, it was cricket. Cricket, on the other hand, had always appeared to Tony Shelton, although he was not of a religious disposition, as the prime reason for the creation of man.”
The archetypal cricket fanatics are Charters and Caldicott in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film THE LADY VANISHES. (A recent rereading of the book on which it is based, Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, indicates they are only in the movie.) While spies are on board a train and the heroine’s life is in danger, they, delightfully played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, are worried about getting back to “civilization” in time to watch the last day of a Test match in Manchester. A television series, Charters and Caldicott, based on the characters, was shown on the BBC in 1985 and later shown in the U.S.A. on Mystery! and Stella Bingham wrote a 1986 book, Charters & Caldicott based on that series. In it they are retired and spend much of their time arguing about cricket statistics.
If for some cricket approaches the status of a religion, two gentlemen named Alington have provided excellent antidotes for those who would take cricket too seriously. In his introduction to Mr. Evans: A Cricketo-Detective Story (1922), Cyril Alington writes: “Cricket which has long had its poets and historians has, so far, to the best of my belief, lacked its detective story. This gap it has been my object to supply.” Thereupon, addressing the reader directly in his mildly humorous style, Alington tells the story of Jack Winterton, reputed to be the best slow bowler in England, who would like to compete for England in their Test Match against Australia. Unfortunately, Jack’s employer, also the guardian of Jack’s fiancée, hates all sports, especially cricket, and will not give Jack time off for the match. Jack and his best friend, Reggie Courthope, connive to keep the guardian/employer away from work during the match so he will not realize Jack is missing. As the match proceeds, there are complications in the form of burglary and possible murder.
If Cyril Alington’s mystery is mildly amusing, the only mystery by Adrian Alington, The Amazing Test Match Crime (1939), is hilarious — the best book-length satire I have read in the mystery genre. An international gang, “The Bad Men”, led by a genius professor, has been hired to disrupt the British Empire. The professor plans to have “Imperia”, a colony, defeat England at cricket in a way that will force the latter to make an accusation of foul play. Due to the controversy, Test Matches will cease, and the British Empire will be dissolved because, according to the professor, “It became obvious to me . . . that the British Empire is held together entirely by a series of contests of this curious crickets (sic).” Doing further research, the professor finds that the rules of cricket are of “extreme complexity and can only be comprehended in their entirety by the English who begin to study them in early infancy.” He also remarks, “. . . I have only been able to discover one cricketer who was not also regarded as a pattern of the highest virtue. That was a certain A.J. Raffles.”
Cricket and its veneration and traditions are mercilessly dissected. When the professor discloses his plan to a British member of the gang, the latter protests, “I was ready to join in assassinating the President of Guamelia and in blowing up the National Bank of Gloritania. But to interfere with a cricket match and in particular a Test Match — no, Professor, low as I have sunk, I am not as loathsome as that.” Lampooning the secrecy that surrounds the selection of the national team that will represent England, Alington has the selection committee meet in a balloon sailing over northern Scotland so there will be no leaks to the press. Alington revels in clichés such as “Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket lovers in all corners of the globe” and gives us a devastating picture of hidebound cricket conservatives unwilling to change the game in any way. When it is suggested that the players wear numbers on their backs for easier identification, a traditionalist harrumphs, “I would rather see the entire English eleven dead at my feet than see them with numbers on their backs.”
When Adrian Alington stops satirising cricket and international affairs, he turns to the detective story with delightful results. He pokes fun at the novels of E. Phillips Oppenheim, whom he diguises as “N. Julius Guggenheim”. He also has fun at the expense of Scotland Yard detectives and amateurs such as Reggie Fortune, here called “Mr. Chance”. Finally, he levels his sights on the hardboiled writers. Apparently annoyed by their success, he inserts a little rhyme:
Sense of late
Is out of date.
It is enough
To be tough.
Though Test Matches get worldwide publicity (except in the United States), it is arguably in social cricket, as played in small English villages, that the game is at its most appealing. A well-written novel describing cricket at this level is Alibi Innings (1954) by Barbara Worsley-Gough. It tells of an elderly couple: a wife who hates cricket and her husband, the Squire, for whom “the annual cricket match between the Squire’s eleven and the village side was the happiest event of the year .... He looked forward to it eagerly for six months and enjoyed it critically in retrospect for six months afterwards. It was his favourite topic of conversation all through the summer, and even in mid-winter his friends used to bring up the subject for the pleasure of seeing his enthusiasm.”
Setting her book during the weekend of this match, Worsley-Gough offers an explanation of the appeal of cricket, especially in troubled times: “[cricket] seemed to compress the universe and all time past, present, and to come, into the compass of afternoon, one field, and the activities of thirteen men in white.” She describes the setting as “ . . . a charmed space, an isolated piece of England with the vast, loud, dangerous world outside shut off for an hour or longer.”
For the protagonist of Geoffrey Household’s Fellow Passenger (1955) cricket “has about it the atmosphere of fiesta — not of red and gold, but of green and white.” An alleged spy and a fugitive from the British police, he stops long enough to take part in a village cricket match. He was once a famous cricketer and now, though disguised, he risks being recognised because of his distinctive off-break bowling.
Local cricket plays a role, albeit a small one, in Michael Gilbert’s The Crack in the Teacup (1966). The protagonist, a young lawyer and cricketer, has to deal with murder and municipal corruption in an English seaside town. Cricket also figures in the English village which Lynton Lamb invented for Death of a Dissenter (1969), though according to Barzun and Taylor there is too much hard-to-read village dialect, too many quaint characters, and too much cricket.
A series of burglaries have plagued the village of Plummergen in Miss Seeton Goes to Bat (1993) which Sarah J. Mason published as “Hamilton Crane”. They have baffled even Scotland Yard. Though Miss Seeton doesn’t know cricket very well, she agrees to sketch a match. She “held her sketch at arm’s length to see whether she had, indeed, captured on paper even part of the mystique that was cricket.” Her drawing proves a catalyst in solving the crimes.
Cricket has been the sport of English writers and detectives. Richard Marsh and J. S. Fletcher were cricketers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an outstanding cricketer for Edinburgh University and the Marylebone Cricket Club. In his first game at Lord’s he scored a century, i.e., got over a hundred runs before being out. An excellent bowler, he once got three consecutively wickets clean-bowled and also once captured the wicket of W. G. Grace, considered by some to have been the greatest of cricketers. Grace appears as a character in William Rushton’s W. G. Grace’s Last Case (1984), and he and Dr. Watson (Holmes is away in Shangri-La) combine to track down a killer. Other characters in this book include Professor Moriarty and A.J. Raffles.
In “The Field Bazaar” (an 1896 Doyle self-parody collected in The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1981, edited by Peter Haining), we learn that Dr. Watson, like his creator, played cricket at Edinburgh University. However, Sherlock Holmes’s attachment to the game is minimal. In that story he admits to only a “small experience of cricket clubs”. In another Doyle self-parody (same source as above), “How Watson Learned the Trick” (1924), Holmes does look in a newspaper to see how Surrey fared in a match.
Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, devoted considerable time to cricket and also made his creation, A. J. Raffles, an outstanding cricketer. In “Gentlemen and Players” (The Amateur Cracksman, 1898), Bunny Manders describes Raffles’s cricket prowess: “. . . he was unique . . . a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade.” According to Bunny, Raffles lost most of his interest in cricket, being infected with the excitement and challenge of his newly found “sport”: burglary. In this story he is invited to play in a weekend match but is riled because the invitation treats him as if he were a professional, not the amateur in cricket he is proud to be. He accepts but gets his revenge by adding burglary to the weekend agenda.
The idea of the weekend cricket party lasted into the 20th century in A. C. H. Smith’s Extra Cover (1981). Charley Midsomer, in debt, agrees to join a party in order to put pressure on one of the guests. He ends up having to play in a match against his victim. Reviewing it in The Mystery Fancier for March-April 1983, Bob Adey commented, “The author clearly knows his cricket, and American readers will have fun trying to piece together and interpret the cricketing lore revealed. ‘Extra Cover’ is, incidentally, a fielding position in right field but much closer to the bowler than right field would be to a baseball pitcher.”
Barry Perowne kept the character of Raffles alive in a series of excellent pastiches, in several of which cricket was important. In “Raffles and the Silver Dish” (Saint Mystery Magazine, December 1958; reprinted in Raffles Revisited, 1974, as “The Dartmoor Hostage”), Raffles and Bunny have once again been invited to a weekend cricket match, but this one is against a team of guards on grounds just outside Dartmoor Prison. All of Raffles’s skill is needed in what turns out to be, literally, a life-or-death match. “The Raffles Bombshell” (EQMM, October 1974) begins with Raffles batting at Lord’s, having scored 73, and with a chance to score a hundred runs by tea time, when the match is interrupted by the visit of King Edward VII. Once His Highness is seated, there is a reversion to the quiet of many cricket matches. “Except for the sound of bat meeting ball, and an occasional ripple of handclapping, an increasingly tense hush brooded over the ground as the hands of the pavilion clock crept toward the hour of four.” The hush will be broken because terrorism also existed in the early 20th century, with assassination attempts on royalty and heads of state, and there is a bomber at Lord’s.
Cricket is used to depict character in Bernard Cornwell’s Gallows Thief (2001), an exciting historical crime novel set in 1817. Captain Rider Sandman is a veteran of Waterloo fallen on hard times because he feels honour-bound to repay the large debts his father incurred before committing suicide. He is also an outstanding cricketer and accepts money to play the occasional match. When he finds that his team-mates threw the match, he refuses to keep the money he was paid and walks back to London rather than accept a ride from his crooked team.
He accepts an assignment from the Home Secretary to investigate the case of the son of Queen Charlotte’s maid, due to hang the following week at Newgate. The Secretary hopes Sandman’s investigation will be perfunctory, but the facts convince the latter that a miscarriage of justice is occurring. However, his chances of preventing this seem slender. Wealthy people want the execution to take place, and the only witness who might clear his ‘client’ has been spirited away.
Part of Chapter 8 of C. P. Snow’s Death Under Sail (1932) takes place at an empty Lord’s. Snow’s eccentric detective, Finbow, has gone there “because there’s no match on. Since cricket became brighter, a man of taste can only go to an empty ground, and regret the past. Or else watch a second-class county match and regret the future.” Finbow continues, “I once saw Woolley make eighty-seven on this ground. After that innings which could ever be played is an anti-climax. There is no point in trying to repeat perfection. Cricket, having been created and evolved, has achieved its purpose, produced one lovely thing, and ought to die. So, particularly now that buffoons turn it into an inferior substitute for musical comedy, I prefer to sit on empty grounds — or to watch Bucks play Beds.” All that Finbow misses is tea. “Drinking the best tea in the world on an empty cricket ground — that, I think, is the final pleasure left to man.”
I’m unaware of any instance in which Dr. Gideon Fell played cricket. However, in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) John Dickson Carr has Fell speak in cricket metaphor when he tells a Scotland Yard inspector: “So far you’ve reasoned closely and well, but to put it pointedly — don’t smash your bat over the wicket keeper’s head when you’ve already made over a century.” A cricket bat is the murder weapon in The Skeleton in the Clock (1948), which Carr published as “Carter Dickson”. I don’t know whether Sir Henry Merrivale played cricket, but, during an American visit in Graveyard to Let (1949) he takes baseball batting practise at a private field in Westchester County.
In Murder Must Advertise (1933) we learn that Lord Peter Wimsey was a star bowler at Oxford in 1911 and, as a batsman, made centuries in two successive innings. In this novel, set 23 years later, Wimsey participates in a match between two commercial firms, Pyms and The Brotherhood. Dorothy L. Sayers provides a fine description of the match and its startling conclusion. I could say more about how Lord Peter comes to play in this unusual match and how the match relates to a series of murders — but that would not be cricket.
Note: This revised article originally appeared in CADS #46 (September2004).
READERS FORUM: Adding to the list above, Sarah Byrne writes a short note about a new series of boys’ books that so far have been published only in Australia.
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Copyright © 2004 by Marvin Lachman.