It’s not often that we see the topic of sports mysteries on this blog, and this time we’ve got one from a former professional athlete. Eli Cranor played quarterback at every level: peewee to professional, and then coached high school football for five years. These days, he tells us, he’s traded in the pigskin for a laptop. His first novel, Don’t Know Tough, won the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest and will be published by Soho Press in 2022. Eli also writes a nationally syndicated sports column. Who better to explain why sports provide such good material for mystery fiction? —Janet Hutchings
I’ve devoted the greater part of my life to two wildly disparate obsessions: American football and books.
I scored my first touchdown at nine. Played quarterback in high school, college, and even one season overseas. Then I came home and coached for five years. Throughout that time, my appetite for reading never waned. I also somehow managed to write in what little downtime I had between practices, games, and offseason workouts. As a college quarterback, I penned short stories on the bus to games in Georgia and Mississippi. As a coach, I made a daily ritual of writing in my journal, scrawling away at the pain and the pressure, trying to figure out how I could help all the young men who’d been entrusted to me.
And then, at the ripe age of twenty-nine—exactly twenty years after I scored that first touchdown on a rainy afternoon in Perryville, Arkansas, exactly twenty seasons later, seasons that had taken me to Boca Raton, Florida, and Karlstad, Sweden—I got out.
I quit. I retired. I’m not sure what the right word is, but I hung up my whistle, walked away from the field, and never looked back.
Okay. Wait. That’s not completely true.
I’ve never gone back to coaching, but I have, almost obsessively, tried to write about my time spent on the gridiron. I’ve written short stories, essays, even a few failed novels, but for whatever reason, I never could boil all the pain, violence, bravado and pageantry into the proper readerly stew. That is, until I stumbled upon the “mystery” genre.
I cut my teeth on gritty Southern literature. Think Larry Brown, Flannery O’Conner, Harry Crews. For years, I tried writing my football stories in the same vein, but something didn’t click. Something was missing. And that something was the mystery.
All sports, if you really think about it, are mysterious. Drop a football and there’s no telling which way it’ll bounce. That’s what draws us to the game, the promise of winners and losers. That’s why the games are played. We don’t know how they’re going to end. There’s an inherent mystery to every contest.
There are other reasons athletics are a good backdrop for mystery novels, one of which is the setting. The stadium or the arena. The locker room. The team. These tightly woven subcultures are perfect for mysteries. All the suspects are there already, trapped inside an enclosed space, all eyes on the scoreboard while blood is shed beneath the bleachers.
I am by no means the first one to come to this conclusion. Peter Lovesey hit on this same idea by setting Wobble To Death, the first novel in his Sergeant Cribb series, at a sporting event. A six-day, 500-mile, speed-walking race, to be exact. It’s an amazingly apt setting because the suspects are all trapped at the event. They’re literally sleeping (barely) in tents around the track! Sports venues open all sorts of opportunities for locked-room mysteries. The wide world of sports isn’t short on motives, either.
Teams are like families but without the blood to bind them. Teams work together. They live and eat together, and of course, they fight. Jealousies abound! Teammates vying for the same position, ready and willing to do whatever they can to win the top spot. With all this competition, there’s always some bad blood.
Megan Abbott is the queen of bad blood. Time and again she expertly weaves athletics into a cohesive, suspenseful narrative. She’s tackled competitive cheerleading, gymnastics, and ballet, in her latest novel, The Turnout. I had a chance to sit down with Megan a few months back and ask her why she continued to return to the world of athletics in her prose. Here’s what she had to say:
“My brother was a really good athlete. I grew up in a household where I would get dragged along to the Little League games and everything. But I never had any capacity to control my body, so I find it all really exotic. I like subcultures of any kind. I think physical ones are more suited to writing because you get to paint a whole world.”
There’s one part that stands out to me in there, and that’s “paint a whole world.” If I were a better interviewer, I would’ve asked Megan to expound upon this, but instead I moved onto the mannequin hand she had sitting on her desk (which was, of course, rather hard to ignore). But what did she mean? Why does an author get to “paint a whole world” when sports/athletics/physicality are involved?
The best answer I can come up with is because sports involve fanaticism. Think “Cheeseheads” and tailgates and bookies with big bucks on the line. In the South, where I’m from, college football is bigger than Jesus.
Now, nobody will admit this, of course, but it’s true. There are far more people in those gargantuan stadiums on Saturdays than in the pews on Sunday mornings. More money is spent at the concession stands than is left in the collection plates. And the only difference between preachers and coaches is that college coaches are multi-millionaires.
The proof, as we like to say down here, is in the pudding. Sports are the biggest thing going in the South. And it’s not just football. Parents of tee-ballers get into fistfights after games. Moms empty their savings account just to pay for their daughters’ gymnastics lessons. It’s all so desperate. That’s what it is. People clinging to something and trying to make it something it’s not. Trying to make it bigger. A father pushing his son to be better than he was, pushing him so hard the kid snaps.
Sport breeds an appetite like none other, and then displays it on courts and fields all across the world. But what happens when that red-hot desire bleeds over? Well, my friends, that’s where the story—the mystery—begins.
Excellent! I grew up in Georgia and love college football. It’s deadly serious stuff and perfect for the mystery/crime genre. Thanks, Eli, I really enjoyed your take on this.
Wonderful column, Eli! Thinking of sports mysteries, I’ll give a shout out to John Feinstein’s Y. A. sports thrillers (I’m over 40 and love them!) and Ellery Queen’s vintage anthology “Sporting Blood” from 1942. (I lucked-out on a copy!) All the best!—-jeff