REVIEWING A COZY HOCKEY MYSTERY - by Jim FeltonEMMA LATHEN - Murder Without Icing. Simon & Schuster, 1972; Pocket Books, 1973.
It’s not easy being a hockey fan. It’s a struggle, with plenty of obstacles to be overcome, and hardships to endure. When the public aren’t indifferent, they’re hostile towards the game. I could write a long essay on what a fan has to put up with in order to enjoy the many pleasures the game provides, but I’ll just say that I was prepared to defend, with vigor, against the basketball adherents and other infidels, my claim on the dorm TV one Sunday afternoon for the championship-deciding game. Decades later I have my own TV but that doesn’t remove every irritation. Now I have to contend with announcers who firmly believe “he” is objective case and directors, bolstered by a full range of video replays, who don’t mind missing the scoring of goals in real-time. Just how far would I go to enjoy hockey, well, I surprised myself by ... reading a cozy.
I am a bit out of my depth to judge Murder Without Icing as a mystery because I am not particularly fond of cozies. I did notice that suspicion was cast upon a significant proportion of the characters, each with strong motives based on self-interest, for the two murders, by different means, occurring in the story. While each death is “understandable” based on the victim’s poor behavior, the question is whether the two are related. If the deaths are unrelated, two killers would be likely, but if they are related, is there one killer? Thus the motives behind the deaths must be established. Once established, the true motive(s), through deductive reasoning, leads (lead) to the killer(s). I believe this is rather standard.
The story concerns a New York City-based professional hockey franchise, the Huskies, born of the 1966 National Hockey League expansion. It is the property of several owners, no one of whom holds a majority share. The time is circa 1971. The team is doing well on the ice and may win not only the division championship but also the Holy Grail of hockey, the Stanley Cup. The Huskies are also a box office success. They’re the talk of the town. Fans are flocking to Madison Square Garden. Broadcasts of the games draw large ratings. Sponsors are eager to jump aboard. What could possibly go wrong? What if new ownership moved the team to another city, Nashville perhaps? What if the star rookie starts up a business that would compete directly with a veteran player’s dream? The simple answer? Both the potential new owner and the star rookie must die.
Did the authors get the hockey parts right? I’m going to give them a grade of B. The ladies certainly absorbed a lot of hockey lore and I think they enjoyed making use of that knowledge. FOOTNOTE.
For example, one of the owners, Clemmie Post, has a pair of husky dogs named Rocket and Pocket – an homage to the legendary Montreal Canadiens Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and his younger brother Henri “the Pocket Rocket.” The book’s title and all the chapter titles make use of phrases known to any hockey fan. There were some mistakes, really pretty minor compared to what they got right: twice stating that a game takes two hours to play (at that time, three hours was a better estimate), and saying that one assist may be awarded for a goal (a goal can have two assists, reflecting the tic-tac-toe nature of much goal scoring).
Another mistake, surprising in light of the authors’ backgrounds in business and finance, is to mention that one player hopes to sign a new three-year contract in the five-figure range. Even in the NHL in 1971, a three-year deal would be in the six-figure range (on a historical note, did price-wage controls extend to sports salaries?). Perhaps this mistake was a typo rather than a misunderstanding. Again, this is really inconsequential – unless the purpose was show how small the pay was for big league professional hockey players.
The final hockey mistake is a serious one, and again surprising with the authors’ backgrounds. The premise is that the worth of the Huskies franchise depends on recent on-ice results, that the value goes down when they lose and goes up when they win. Did the writers confuse this with the way betting odds operate? The truth is that the value of a hockey franchise, or other big league sports franchise, is not volatile like the value of a prize fighter or race horse, or a hot stock.
Forget the mystery aspects of this story for a moment and listen to the echoes of seventy-five years of hockey history. It is sort of like A Christmas Carol but with the ghosts of Hockey Past, Present and Future.
New York City did have two NHL teams from the late 1920s until 1941. The New York Americans were owned by a bootlegger who eventually landed in prison. They played in Madison Square Garden. Seeing the Americans’ success the MSG people bought their own franchise – the Rangers – and both teams played at MSG. Finally MSG declined to renew the Americans’ lease, so the team folded unable to secure a home arena. See Total Hockey pages 247-8 and 459-461 for more about this franchise.
Of course the New York City metropolitan area would eventually see three NHL teams with the addition of the New York Islanders and the New Jersey Devils, but there was also a World Hockey Association franchise in NYC briefly in the early 1970s – and again forced to negotiate with MSG and the Rangers for game dates.
And there was the threat in 1995 that the New Jersey Devils would relocate because of difficulties negotiating with the Meadowlands, possibly to Nashville. That didn’t happen but Nashville eventually did get an NHL franchise.
The names of some of the characters ring familiar as well. The coach is Milt Forsberg – suggesting former player and coach Milt Schmidt and Peter Forsberg, today a top player, and his father Kent has coached. There is a Bowman – Scotty Bowman had already begun his road to nine Stanley Cups. There is a Ferguson – suggesting John Ferguson, former player now in management (as is his son).
I would recommend Murder Without Icing to the general mystery reader, as figuring out whodunit is trickier than usual. To the hockey fan, show some grit and be patient with the factual errors, then enjoy how much of the history of hockey has been woven into this tale.
FOOTNOTE: The ladies that Jim is referring to are Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, who wrote an even two dozen mysteries under the collaborative pseudonym of Emma Lathen. Jim doesn’t mention him, but the detective in all of their books was banker/investment broker John Putnam Thatcher. The two ladies in question also wrote another seven mysteries as by R. B. Dominic, all with Ben Safford as the detective involved, he being (uniquely, perhaps) a US Congressman from Ohio.
ALSO PLEASE NOTE: For Jim’s complete annotated list of mysteries in which hockey is either on center stage (or center ice) or merely referred to, go here.
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