Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
It's April, 1922, and Mickey Rawlings, utility infielder for the St Louis Browns, is about to discover there's more at stake than winning a baseball game. East St Louis is a city scarred by the events of 1917, when white residents massacred their black neighbors in the worst explosion of racial violence in American history.
Five years later, lingering shadows of hate still hover over the community, and when pitcher Slip Crawford leads his black team to victory, the Ku Klux Klan make their presence known, and Crawford is found dead.
Now, everything Mickey has ever fought for and everything he has ever believed will be challenged. From a first hand view of segregation to meetings with stars of the new Negro National League - including Cool Papa Bell and Oscar Charleston - to a KKK rally in Indiana, Mickey sees a side of American life he's never experienced before.
I've always been a little bemused that more crime novels aren't set in the world of sports. It seems such an untapped goldmine of potential settings, tensions, and vivid characters. So I was stoked to come across this book at a library booksale while briefly back in New Zealand. Even better, it mixes mystery, history, and baseball - one of my favorite sports (even though I'm not American).
I wasn't disappointed. Troy Soos drops the reader deep into 1920s America, utilising his baseball playing amateur sleuth Mickey Rawlings as both a fascinating character and a prism through which to view American society of the time. It's often not a pretty picture. While the Roaring 20s might have been a golden age for baseball and some other areas of society, it was also a time of much division. The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise - and not just in the South. Lots of prominent people were involved in the racist organisation, from judges to top baseball players to police chiefs. Hiding behind the falsehood - maybe lying to themselves - that it was about citizenship and being a good American.
Baseball, like other areas of American life, was segregated at the time. Many of the best players were black, but they weren't allowed in the major leagues to compete against the likes of Babe Ruth, a mythic, superhero figure to many Americans now and then. There were burgeoning Negro Leagues, which had some outstanding talent despite being treated like third-class citizens.
Mickey Rawlings is no Babe Ruth, but he is a major leaguer, and gets paid to play baseball. Even if he spends much of his time on the St Louis Browns bench, and mentoring the young star-on-the-rise who plays the same position as him. Mickey loves the game, however, so he grabs the rare chance to play against a talented Negro team as a 'ringer' for a local semi-pro club. He plays under a false name, as major leaguers aren't meant to play against black players, by order of the commissioner.
Mickey's side is well-beaten, but when the superstar Negro pitcher is found lynched at the park after the game, simmering racial tensions threaten to explode. Mickey is drawn deeper into the situation by an acquaintance who is working with a lawyer to get reduce racism via the legal and legislative system. A fool's errand perhaps, given the broad politics and power structures of the time.
HANGING CURVE is a terrific mystery which balances a nostalgic look at baseball with an exploration of a dark period of American history. Soos balances his tale well, blending mystery and history, and having enough of the sport to provide colour and texture to the setting without overwhelming those who aren't fans (though I think baseball-loving readers will enjoy it even more).
Soos gives the reader a great insight into the times, taking us into the political machinations of the Negro Leagues, the Ku Klax Klan, and the broader society. Soos does a tremendous job threading in lots of history without info-dumping. He has a great storyteller's touch. There is a really strong mystery plotline too, which bubbles away throughout and delivers in a really satisfying way.
There are so many things to like about this mystery. It may not be a 5-star high-concept blockbuster, but it's a very, very good tale that would be enjoyable for most crime readers, and particularly recommended for mystery fans who also have an interest in baseball or American history.
Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson