Sore Loser

by Mike McAlary

Published by William Morrow and Company

352 pages, 1998

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"Loser" Could Be a Winner

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson

The cold-blooded murders of referees and umpires have the East Coast sports world paralyzed with fear. One of New York City's top cops, Inspector Mickey Donovan, is under pressure to close the case fast. But he's playing his own dangerous game with the prime suspect, haughty tennis star Ginny Glade.

Sore Loser, the first crime novel by New York Daily News city columnist Mike McAlary, is a trove of rich vignettes about life and death in the Big Apple. Here we encounter the political and sexual shenanigans of egotistical Mayor Vito Caruso ("You are the greatest mayor since LaGuardia," his flunkies assure him); the twisted dealings of an ex-cop turned heroin addict; and the locker room antics of Shane Heath, the crude second-rate outfielder to whom Glade was briefly, and miserably, married.

Was Glade miserable enough, however, to kill the World Series umpire who mistakenly ruled Heath's long fly to right field a game-winning home run, turning her charmless ex into a sports legend?

Unlikely. And yet, the death of the baseball umpire was suspiciously similar to that of tennis umpire Blinky Hammond who, just a few days earlier, had made a bad call against Glade and cost her a crucial comeback match.

McAlary gives the reader an advantage over Inspector Donovan, revealing that Glade was, indeed, involved in Hammond's death. She brained him with a tire iron when he taunted her in a dark hotel parking lot. Overcoming her initial shakiness, Glade becomes intoxicated with this achievement: 

Occasionally she heard a siren. But the strident wailing was not for her. After all those nights of learning to lose well, Ginny dreamed of getting dressed alongside seeded players and former champions in the main ladies' locker room at Wimbledon. Ginny was finally free of the caste system. Murder, like winning, was thrilling stuff.

Part of her thrill is flirting with the police. Donovan finds Glade, by turns cool and sultry, compelling. He's taken aback by incriminating items she leaves in full view in her apartment, from a newspaper clipping about the unsolved murder of a woman umpire some months earlier to a stack of violent videos. Yet his questioning leaves her unflustered. While all clues point to Glade as a murder suspect, she doesn't act like one.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ginny said, touching the cop's hand. Mickey stood up, rattled. He liked her touch. The danger of being caught with her aroused him.

Despite all the warning signals, this tough cop is in bed with Glade posthaste, throwing caution -- and, unfortunately, some of the book's credibility -- out the window of her Upper East Side apartment.

Readers who have followed Michael Connelly's acclaimed series about Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch (the newest entry being Angel's Flight) will find much that is familiar in Sore Loser. Donovan, like Bosch, runs afoul of his city's politicians and bureaucrats. Both men have a dangerous weakness for passionate but deceptive women. And like the Bosch series, Sore Loser takes full advantage of a gritty, urban setting. McAlary, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, writes more vividly and poetically than Connelly -- but that may be part of the problem with Sore Loser.

After a strong beginning, the book turns hyper. McAlary gets carried away relating colorful political anecdotes that do little to advance the story. In one, the police squabble with Mayor Caruso over who will get credit for unleashing a military tank to storm a city block occupied by squatters. In another, an anonymous phone caller sets up Hizzoner to be caught mid-dalliance at a downtown hotel, forced by a bomb scare to flee into the clutches of a waiting press corps: 

"New York Post Standard," Myron Byron said cheerfully. "City desk."

"Yeah," Dillon whispered. "Get a photographer over to the Helmsley Palace on Forty-second Street. The Daily News is already there. There's a bomb scare. The mayor will be coming out a backdoor exit on Forty-first Street after a sordid rendezvous. He will be easy to spot. Mr. Mayor will be wearing his nicest flower dress."

"Photo!" Myron roared, holding the pink slip of information firmly in his hand. "I think we got the big one."

A mawkish subplot in which Donovan repeatedly endangers his career while trying to rescue his wayward teenaged daughter from the heroin scene makes the story both implausible and implausibly busy -- Sore Loser is one of those books in which the characters never need or get much sleep. And -- always a warning sign that an author is losing it -- midway through the book a deranged stalker emerges as a key suspect.

To McAlary's great credit, he regains focus in the last chapter and pulls all the threads of his story together for a chilling, and classic, ending. While Sore Loser won't win McAlary a "Rookie of the Year" nomination, it's an intriguing beginning. His career in mystery fiction is likely to be one to watch. | December 1998


KAREN G. ANDERSON, editor of the Seattle-based magazine Northwest Health, writes frequently about crime fiction for January Magazine.


Editor's note: New York Daily News columnist Mike McAlary died of cancer on Christmas Day, 1998. He had won a Pulitzer Prize earlier in the year for his commentary on the beating and torturing of a Haitian immigrant, allegedly by Brooklyn police. He was the author of Sore Loser.