Putt to Death
by Roberta Isleib
Published by Berkley Prime Crime
272 pages, 2004
by Keith Miles
Published by Poisoned Pen Press
256 pages, 2004
Fit to Be Teed
Reviewed by Cindy Chow
For a rather sedate sport, professional golf seems to deliver more than its fair share of nasty breaks. Witness the plethora of golf-related mysteries by William Bernhardt (Final Round), Harlan Coben (Back Spin), John R. Corrigan (Snap Hook), Aaron and Charlotte Elkins (A Wicked Slice), Janice Law (Death Under Par), Quintin Jardine (Skinner's Round), Don Wade (Take Dead Aim), John Logue (Follow the Leader) and Bruce Zimmerman (Crimson Green), among others. One of Agatha Christie's early Hercule Poirot novels, Murder on the Links (1923), found the Belgian sleuth looking into a golf-course killing, and an E.C. Bentley short story, "The Sweet Shot" (1938), builds around the death of a golfer who is apparently killed by lightning while rounding the greens on a cloudless day. Who knew that such hazards awaited the club-swinging crowd?
All of this mayhem may be provoked by the vast amounts of money that are up for grabs in professional golf tournaments. Or maybe it's just that golf mysteries allow their authors the opportunity to combine research with recreation. In either event, the challenge for contributors to this subgenre is to make their stories interesting not only to fans of the sport, but also to people like me, for whom the highlight of golf is driving those rickety little carts at top speed through roughs. This is a tricky balance, to be sure -- the literary equivalent of a hole in one. But it can be achieved.
One author who's succeeded in demonstrating her knowledge of golf, while still attracting readers who have never done more than putt balls over a moat and through a spinning windmill, is Roberta Isleib. Her third and latest Golf Lover's Mystery, Putt to Death, picks up where last year's A Buried Lie left off. Following her less-than-stellar rookie year as a professional golfer, Cassie Burdette is forced to take a job as a touring pro for Stony Creek, an exclusive Connecticut country club. What this entails is substituting as a clerk at the golf shop, trying to improve members' lifetime bad habits in one lesson, showing up for promotional events and attending club board meetings, during which the strife exceeds anything seen on the fairways.
If golf is indeed primarily a mental game, it's no wonder that Cassie has had such a dismal season. She's just started a tentative relationship with Professional Golf Association (PGA) pro Mike Callahan, for whom she used to caddie -- until he fired her in a fit of temper. Meanwhile, her own caddie and best friend has hired on as Mike's new caddie, and is apparently a lot better at the job than Cassie ever was. Mike's sport psychologist, Joe Lancaster, whom Cassie had been looking at as potential boyfriend material, has started dating another psychologist, whose sophistication makes the more relaxed Cassie uncomfortable. And, finally, Cassie's father has suddenly reappeared after an absence of more than 10 years, with the apparent intention of starting a father-daughter golf team. Faced with all of these stresses, our heroine has been cast back into therapy and is looking for a distraction from her personal problems.
Just such a distraction is soon found at Stony Creek, where many board members appear resolved to preserve their club's antiquated atmosphere. To judge by this organization's example, one would never know that America's feminist movement had ever begun, much less triumphed -- single and divorced women aren't allowed to hold memberships; women are permitted only restricted tee times, and they are forbidden from eating in the club's grill. Also frowned upon is any pro-environment stance, since keeping the grounds green and the pests dead is a top priority. Naturally enough, it's the advocates of both viewpoints who quickly end up on the endangered list.
While putting in a necessary appearance one day as the Connecticut club's lady pro golfer, Cassie stumbles across the body of Brad Latham, who'd wanted the association to be more wildlife-friendly, left at the 7th hole. And despite the insistence of nearly everyone, including local police, that she's not a suspect, the discovery of her bloodstained sand wedge can't help but throw Ms. Burdette smack into the middle of the ensuing investigation. Wanting to clear herself of blame, but distracted by her overwhelming personal problems, Cassie engages in some haphazard sleuthing of her own: she asks everyone she can find who they think committed the murder. Not exactly an innovative approach, but then, she's a golfer, not a detective.
Isleib's mystery series depends both on Cassie Burdette's ability to control a scene and the reader's willingness to continue following this 20-something woman, whose difficulties in life are ever-multiplying. She's not only makeup-phobic and neurotic, but frequently makes wrong decisions in her relationships. Remarkably, this makes her a more sympathetic and likable figure, though in reading Putt to Death I did occasionally want to whack her over the head, just to see if I could knock some sense into her. Then again, Cassie already faces enough hardships as a professional athlete, something she tries to explain to her therapist:
The pressure is relentless. Every swing means something -- for your score, for the tournament, for the year, for life ..."
For duffers and abject golf neophytes, there's a helpful glossary at the rear of this paperback original, and scenes that depict tournament play are never overly extended or prohibitively complex. Even inveterate golf-haters, those likely to agree with Mark Twain's assessment of this game as "a good walk spoiled," might find Cassie's love of play infectious. Although the killer's identity here is pretty obvious, even if that person's criminal motivation is not, Putt to Death's mystery thread unravels at a healthy clip. The book is a fun read, one that's several strokes ahead of the competition.
Not quite on par with this is Honolulu Play-Off, the sixth and latest entry in Keith Miles' Alan Saxon series. After a more than decade-long hiatus, Alan returned in 2002's Bermuda Grass (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," #10), having retired from the pro circuit and now designing golf courses instead of competing on them. As this new novel begins, he's luxuriating in the warm light of his latest achievement -- creating a beautiful and successful golf course in San Diego, California -- when he receives a phone call that promises still more good times. Friend and rival golfer Donald Dukelow is planning to get married for the third time (one time wasn't legal), and he wants Alan to witness the event in Honolulu, Hawaii. Although Alan continues to nurse some resentment toward Dukelow for losses past, a week on Oahu sounds too good to pass up.
When Alan arrives in the tropical islands, he discovers that Dukelow has also invited his mother and, incomprehensibly, his first ex-wife, Heidi, to the nuptials. Since Alan continues to harbor ill feelings regarding his own former spouse, Rosemary, he is more than baffled by this turn of events. At least until he meets Heidi Dukelow, an exceedingly attractive woman -- and an extraordinarily forgiving one, too, given that Donald had left her because he grew bored with their marriage. But any chance that this wedding will go off without a hitch is squashed when Donald's mother demonstrates an obvious preference for the first Mrs. Dukelow, and when the family of Donald's fiancée, Zann Kaheiki, seems less than thrilled to have her marrying a "foreigner."
Worse, after a last-day-of-bachelorhood celebration at a Honolulu nightclub, Alan discovers his old rival's corpse in his hotel room, a skewer shoved fatally into Dukelow's ear. Horrified and feeling guilty that the drunken Donald was left vulnerable to attack, Alan vows revenge and determines to unmask his killer.
The British Saxon (introduced in Bullet Hole, 1986) is a character burdened with emotional baggage. Some of it stems from his bitter divorce, but he also harbors regrets over his golfing losses and has long nursed an antipathy toward the police, thanks to the fact that his tyrannical father was a cop. It's that last bit of baggage that causes Alan to make the most incomprehensible decisions here: lying to the police, pursuing investigative leads of his own, and basically putting his neck on the line over and over again. Smart and self-reliant, he doesn't go far out of his way looking for assistance. Yet in Honolulu Play-Off, he comes to trust Zann's sister, Melissa, a well-pierced militant lesbian who runs a feminist theater and is the Kaheiki family outcast. Saxon's perceptions of the younger Melissa are revealing:
Walking beside Melissa Kaheiki was a curious experience. Instead of feeling conspicuous and out of place, I was relaxed for the first time that day. It was inexplicable. Alone in a hotel room with Heidi, I'd shuttled between sadness and excitement, grieving for the loss of a dear friend yet stirred by the presence of his first wife in a way that I was still trying to understand. When I strolled along Waikiki Beach with a gay woman, however, I felt all the tension go. It didn't trouble me that Melissa must have looked like a walking advertisement for body piercing or that she waddled along in her disintegrating trainers as if she were a hobo in search of a hand-out. I liked her. We were friends.
Melissa proves to be an unlikely but extremely valuable ally for Alan Saxon, especially helpful when it comes to navigating the convoluted relationships within her very prominent and powerful clan. Ever-dogged in his pursuit of the truth, this amateur sleuth links Dukelow's death to a possible drug scheme as well as a past murder -- and its victim, who seems to have been resurrected.
British novelist Keith Miles has written more than 40 mysteries, most often under the pseudonym "Edward Marston." He may be best recognized for his books about Elizabethan stage manager Nicholas Bracewell (The Wanton Angel, The Vagabond Clown), but he also pens a couple of transportation-related series, one set around mid-19th-century British railroading (The Railway Detective, 2004), and the other -- written under the nom de plume "Conrad Allen" -- being a series of early 20th-century shipboard mysteries (Murder on the Marmora, 2004), in addition to his Alan Saxon stories. Unfortunately, all of these commitments may be stretching the author too thin. That might account for the somewhat scattered plot of Honolulu Play-Off and for this book's disappointing conclusion. The dialogue here could have used some polishing, too; it is at times inauthentic, with the 20-something Melissa describing herself as feeling "pole-axed" and explaining that her theater's next performance will be in a "fortnight." Thankfully, though, Miles doesn't attempt to re-create the Hawaiian pidgin dialect that even locals have difficulty producing without sounding absurd.
But my greatest gripe with this novel is Miles' stingy descriptions of Oahu. Restaurants, the hotel in which Saxon stays and streets down which his escapades take him go largely unnamed and are so generically described that this tale's action might be occurring anywhere. Although publicity materials for Honolulu Play-Off claim that Miles did his research on Hawaiian golf courses, the book reads as if he never left them. Having been born and reared on Oahu, I may of course be more critical than most readers about such details; but it does seem a waste to not take better literary advantage of this exotic setting. Even the book's golf-focused scenes are low-key and minimalistic.
As a mystery, Honolulu Play-Off does well in maintaining reader attention. But folks attracted to this novel by the prospect of vicariously enjoying paradise on a well-groomed golf course ought to tee up elsewhere. | March 2004
Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She's a regular contributor to "The Rap Sheet," January's crime fiction newsletter, and also reviews books for The No Name Café site.