Bill Kennedy, contributor to this article, baseball fan, and author of the PI novel Curveball, noted that baseball has "a long history, dramatic plotlines, and zany characters." Popular in the US since the 1850s, the larger-than-life characters, thrills, and sociopolitical context have been ample inspiration for countless mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels.
In honor of America's favorite pastime (and we do mean, reading mysteries), Mystery Scene asked our dream team of baseball crime writers to share their favorite baseball-themed mysteries, thrillers, and suspense picks. Read on for their home-run recommendations.
Troy Soos is the author of the Mickey Rawlings baseball mystery series centered on the exploits of a young baseball player in the early 20th century. The six-book series, which began with Murder at Fenway Park in 1994, has just been re-released by Kensington Books. www.kensingtonbooks.com
Strike Three You're Dead
by R.D. Rosen
Walker & Co., 1984
One of my favorite baseball mysteries is Richard D. Rosen's Strike Three, You're Dead, which I believe won an Edgar. What I liked about Rosen's book was that a solid mystery was at the heart of the novel. Sometimes when a book has a particular theme or setting the mystery takes a backseat to the atmosphere or period. Rosen included enough baseball for an interesting background while maintaining focus on the mystery.
(R.D. Rosen's five-book Harvey Blissberg series has been re-released by Open Road Media.)
If I Never Get Back
by Darryl Brock
Not a typical mystery, but a baseball-themed novel that I particularly enjoyed is If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, which involves the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. If I Never Get Back featured a real team and historical figures (which is what I do with the Mickey Rawlings series), but Brock expanded the possibilities of the novel beyond that of most mysteries.
(Brock's hero, reporter Sam Fowler, also returns in the follow-up novel, Two In the Field.)
A terrific collection of baseball mystery short stories is Murderers' Row, edited by Otto Penzler, which includes stories by Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Max Allan Collins, and Lawrence Block. The short story collection represents quite a variety of approaches to a baseball-themed mystery, demonstrating that it is a rich subgenre. I'm also fond of the short story format in general, because the writing is usually so sharp and tight.
(Short story fans looking for more baseball tales will also want to check out Murderers' Row: Orginal Baseball Stories, Vol. 2)
Jen Estes is the author of Big Leagues and the Cat McDaniel Mystery Series about a sleuthing female sportswriter. A former baseball blogger and freelance sportswriter herself, Estes currently lives in Illinois with her husband and cat. www.jenestes.com
Mickey Rawlings Series
by Troy Soos
Author Troy Soos' Mickey Rawlings baseball mystery novels are a personal favorite. The series originally debuted in the '90s, but was just released by Kensington Books in a reprint and ebook. Set in the era of early 20th-century baseball, the series is timeless fun for baseball fans.
Kate Henry Mystery Series
by Alison Gordon
Alison Gordon, one of Canada's first female sportswriters, penned the Kate Henry mystery series, which like mine, follows a female sportswriter dipping her heels into amateur sleuthing.
(The first book in the five-book series, The Dead Pull Hitter, begins, "I'm Katherine Henry. My friends call me Kate. I am a baseball writer by trade...I'm good at my job, to the active disappointment of some of my male colleagues, who have been waiting for me to fall on my face since the day I walked into my first spring training. I am also the only woman on the team plane who doesn't serve drinks.")
(Readers who enjoy Schatz's fast-paced Marshall Connors series will also want to be on the lookout for the first book in a new baseball-themed series from the author, Liars Ball.)
For younger mystery readers, David A. Kelly writes a great series entitled Ballpark Mysteries. As a Cubs fan, I adored The Wrigley Riddle (Random House, 2013), even if I am a couple decades older than the target audience.
Dorothy Seymour Mills
Dorothy Jane Mills is a writer, editor, and sports historian who writes baseball books as Dorothy Seymour Mills, including the Oxford University Press three-volume baseball series and the excellent historical baseball mystery novel Drawing Card (McFarland, 2012), about a woman ballplayer. www.dorothyjanemills.com
It's not a mystery, but in baseball literature, my favorite is Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc. It's technically fantasy, I believe, but it drew me in completely, and I somehow found myself accepting the mysterious coming-alive of a dreamed-up baseball league. When fantasy leagues began to be popular for baseball fans to play, I remembered the way I found it possible to believe in Coover's league and could understand how baseball fans get so caught up in the leagues they themselves create.
As the author of a recently published baseball-oriented PI novel called Curveball (Attica Books, 2012) featuring a detective-narrator who is a former player for the Chicago Cubs, Bill Kennedy has been interested in the baseball-mystery connection for a long time. Kennedy is a former English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, though, he says, "Sadly, I’ve never pitched for the Cubs." www.atticabooks.com
William L. DeAndrea’s 1982 mystery uses baseball as a window to a particular time and place, in this case, New York in the early 1950s. The evocative title refers to the late-inning power that propelled the Yankees to so many victories during the team’s golden age. This fine old-school mystery begins with the murder of a notorious McCarthyite Congressman at Yankee Stadium. Former Yankee farmhand and wounded Korean War veteran Russ Garrett teams up with a tough New York homicide detective to solve the murder. Their investigation leads to some fascinating twists and turns, including a plot to murder Mickey Mantle. The Mick, Yogi Berra, and other baseball legends are seamlessly woven into the novel.
by Robert B. Parker
Houghton Mifflin, 1975
When Robert B. Parker’s Spenser takes on a case involving the Boston Red Sox, you expect best-in-class, and for me that’s Mortal Stakes, published in 1975. Parker takes a straightforward plot—for reasons unknown, a top Red Sox pitcher may be throwing games—and turns it into a thrilling kill-or-be-killed tale, as well as a look at the dark side of baseball, where gamblers are always on the lookout for weaknesses to be exploited. Spenser is also compelled to take an honest look at the macho moral code that guides professional ballplayers and Spenser himself. (Another strength of Mortal Stakes is the absence, for most of the book, of the annoying Susan Silverman.)
And now, as the Monty Pythons used to say, for something completely different. That would be Screwball, a 2003 novel by David Ferrell. It’s an over-the-top black comedy that answers the question: What if the Red Sox lineup that could end the 80-year "curse of the Bambino" includes a serial killer? It’s no easy trick to sustain a madcap, Carl Hiaasen vibe through multiple murders. Ferrell brings it off by focusing on the Sox’s long-suffering manager, Augie "Big Fish" Sharkey, who’s forced to become a detective to save his team, career, and sanity. Why isn’t the book better known? The malicious baseball gods must have been at work, because it came out just before the Red Sox dramatically ended their championship drought in 2004.
Plus more reads to get you through the season...
1. Highly respected baseball writer and historian Donald Honig is a prolific nonfiction author on the subject, but has also penned several novels, including a wonderful suspense series set in the 1940s and featuring sportswriter Joe Tinker. Look for The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson (Dutton, 1992) and Last Man Out (NAL, 1993).
2. The prolific Jerome Charyn returns to baseball-related plots time and time again in his series featuring Isaac Sidel, a Jewish police officer turned mayor. The tough, smart series is set largely in the Bronx, New York, home of the Yankees and hometown of Charyn. All ten Isaac Sidel books were reprinted in 2012 by Mysterious Press.
3. G. S. Rowe's Will Beaman mysteries center on a minor-league backstop and his crime-solving, baseball-playing, lady-loving adventures in late 19th- and early 20th-century Boston. The four-book series, beginning with Best Bet in Beantown (Pocol Press, 2002), uses plots and characters largely based on historical events.
4. Crabbe Evers, the pseudonym for writing team William Brashler and Reinder Van Til, penned a five-book series in the 1990s about a retired Chicago sportswriter named Duffy House. If you're interested, start with Bleeding Dodger Blue (Crimeline, 1991).
5. Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery (Hall of Fame Press, 2008), by mother-son team Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and Jere Smith, finds Boston homicide detective Rocky Patel on two Red Sox-related cases: an abandoned baby left in the players' chapel at Fenway Park in Boston, and the murder of a Red Sox farm-team player's girlfriend.
6. Only The Wicked is the fourth in Gary Phillips' Ivan Monk series, and when Monk's cousin Kennesaw Riles, a former baseball player, is murdered, has the PI leaving Los Angeles and heading to the Mississippi Delta for an investigation colored by blues music, eccentric characters, and the history of the Negro baseball leagues.
7. The thriller Caught Stealing, by Charlie Huston, has Henry Thompson, a former California ball player turned New York bartender, running for his life (and using his baseball bat in a totally new way) when something in his previous sports life sets a cast of thugs, goons, and mafia hit men on his tail.