In 1988 Brazilian football legend Pelé co-wrote, with Herbert Resnicow, The World Cup Murder. A rare copy featured in the Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction exhibition at The British Library in 2013. Last night Brazil played its first home World Cup game since 1950. To be frank, whether you like football or not it is certainly better than the build-up to the tournament. For months now the media coverage has focused on accusations of corruption within the game’s governing body, ill-equipped stadia and infrastructure across the country, street protests by union workers and, most recently, hypocritical outbursts by sponsors who become moral arbiters only when revenues are threatened (Lance Armstrong anyone?). Across the world, sports are under increasing pressure from match-fixing allegations, unscrupulous agents, failed drugs tests and spiralling debts. Exercise, it seems, has never been so bad for us. Last night however, thoughts finally turned to the suffocating weight of expectation on the host nation and for a few all-too-short weeks we can gorge ourselves on the beautiful game. Football has returned to the sports pages but before we settle back and indulge I want, for this post at least, to embrace the darker side of the business and introduce you to the fabulous and often shameless world of sporting crime fiction. Pelé, I assure you, is not alone. This is a bigger and deeper pool than you may have realised and had everything from recently retired sports stars cashing in on their fame to well crafted and immensely enjoyable works from the most unlikely sources. It also boasts a genuine literary giant. This particular offshoot of the crime fiction genre is, like the local tipple across Brazil, a heady cocktail. Please read responsibly as some of what follows, particularly when it comes to the titles, is a rather bumpy ride.
Let’s kick off with a question. What do Martina Navratilova, Ilie Nastase, Helen Wills Moody and Helen Hull Jacobs have in common? Well, apart from winning a host of tennis Grand Slam events they have all written, or at least put their names to, a number of crime fiction novels. Helen Hull Jacobs won several Grand Slam titles in the 1930s and in 1977 she published Savage Ally which has the following tag line on the cover, He was Irish and fought with the English in 1776. His love lived under two flags. Similarly, in 1939, the year after her retirement following no less than 19 Grand Slam singles titles Helen Wills Moody co-wrote Death Serves An Ace (I promise you it gets worse) with Robert W. Murphy. In a way, Jacobs and Moody blazed a trail for more recent players like Martina Navratilova to swap the tennis racket for a pen. With her writing partner Liz Nickles, Navratilova published The Total Zone (1994), Breaking Point (1996), and Killer Instinct (1997). If you’d like a male perspective then you could always try the former world number one Ilie Nastase whose literary output in the 1980s comprises Tie-Break (cover picture above), Net, and Break Point.
Tennis is just one example, and there are many, many more. Former England Cricket captain Ted Dexter co-wrote Testkill (1976) with Clifford Makins, a novel in which an Australian cricketer is murdered at Lord’s. Author Bernard Newman used the home of cricket as his setting for Death at Lord’s (1952) and also wrote several other sporting whodunits including Cup Final Murder (1950) and Centre Court Murder (1951). In the 1970s aspiring international football manager Terry Venables managed to find time to co-write a series of novels with no less than Booker Prize nominee Gordon Williams, featuring private detective James Hazell. The books would later be made into a television series featuring Nicholas Ball.
Some of what is listed here is good, surprisingly so in certain cases. However, the very best example of sporting crime fiction comes from the pen not of an established author, although he certainly became one, but of a former horse racing jockey. After a ten-year racing career during which he won over 300 races and was a champion jockey, Dick Francis embarked upon a fifty-year writing career that staggers in its scale and run of success. Starting in 1962 with Dead Cert Francis wrote mainly about crime in the horse racing world and his personal experiences as a jockey, combined with his skill as a writer produced over 40 international bestsellers which were translated into over 20 languages. He won just about every major crime writing award it is possible to win and he is rightly considered as a literary giant. To have one successful career is a privilege, but to have two is incredible. Most of the titles I’ve referenced today are out of print, including Pelé’s. I’d be astonished if that ever happened to Dick Francis.
Before I let you get back to the football I wanted to let you know that during the World Cup I will be showcasing the very best examples of crime fiction (books, films and television shows) from the eight countries to have won the tournament. When we’ve done that it should be time to get back to focusing on the alleged corruption at the heart of football. When that time comes I have a question of my own I’d like to ask. If I wrote a novel about a sporting body that held that much power would you read it? No, you wouldn’t, because it would never get published. After all, it could never really happen, could it?
Enjoy the show. It will be over before you know it.