Sports and Historical Mysteries

jousting 2Super Bowl Sunday just wrapped up here in the US. What this essentially means, by and large, is that TV screens captured eyeballs, beer flowed (and often tasted) like water, the pizza industry set and broke sales records, and 30-second ad spots were sold for ridiculous amounts of money. All of this was done ostensibly in the name of sports – an activity that humans have been obsessed with through most of recorded history, going back several millennia. Naturally, this got me thinking about the history and mystery genre, and the extent to which sports have featured as either a central theme or plot device in the stories we love to read in this space.

As always, in our increasingly specialized and segmented world, we can arrive at this intersection from multiple directions. There is the sports mystery genre, populated by stalwarts such as Dick Francis (horse racing), and Carl Hiassen (bass fishing), as well as newer entrants like Alina Adams (ice skating), Keith McCafferty (fly fishing) and Jim Bartlett (golf). Some of these mysteries have historical settings, and so fit the bill in terms of our genre. In fact, The Mystery Readers Journal, a quarterly magazine published by Mystery Readers International, has an entire issue devoted to sports mysteries (Volume 25, Winter 2010).

gladiatorAnd then at the other end of the spectrum is the history and mystery genre which occasionally finds itself in sports settings – whether it be chariot races, gladiatorial combat (under the dubious category of blood sports), the ancient Olympic Games, medieval sports, or horse racing. Steven Saylor, whose mystery novels are set in ancient Rome, has his sleuth Gordianus the Finder investigate shady dealings in the gladiatorial business in A Gladiator Only Dies Once. In another Saylor short story collection, The Seven Wonders, Gordianus investigates some dubious events surrounding the Olympic Games in ancient Greece. Similarly, in Robin Paige’s collection of murder mysteries set in Victorian and Edwardian England, the Sheridans (a pair of fictional sleuths) investigate a murder at the racing track in Death at Epsom Downs. Medieval sports, with their fascination for combat, offer fertile territory for murder and mayhem, so some historical mysteries set in this time period have naturally touched on jousting and archery, for example.

All of this, in my mind, is simply a reflection of the fact that crime and sports have been connected to each other throughout history, to one degree or another. I suppose any activity that people are obsessed about, or get unduly distracted by, or bet large sums of money on, will eventually offer either a motive or an opportunity for a crime. And that in turn, provides writers of the historical mystery genre with another theme to exploit.

As for me, I will now amble off so I can ponder the mystery of how exactly such large quantities of junk food and alcohol could possibly have been consumed during the course of a Super Bowl game that lasted a mere four hours!

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