The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a novel set against the backdrop of a sporting event but that does not mean that it is a sports novel. Indeed, with the exception of a few pages of action prior to the murder you will not need to worry about positions, the offside rule or cups of steaming Bovril (unless that is your beverage of choice while reading Golden Age crime novels).
I would say that the author, Leonard Gribble, is entirely new to me but I realized when tagging this post that I had read one of his short stories in The Long Arm of the Law, a collection of police tales also issued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. That had been a largely forgettable affair lacking in any distinctive incident or character – certainly not a complaint I would level against this book.
The murder takes place during a football match between Arsenal and an amateur team, the Trojans, watched by some 70,000 people. One-nil down at half time, the Trojans take the game to Arsenal in the second half and are awarded a penalty. John Doyce steps up and converts the kick but a few moments later he collapses and enters a coma from which he does not wake up. It turns out that he was poisoned but how was it administered during a soccer game being so watched so intently?
As the excellent introduction from Martin Edwards points out, this book is novel for several reasons but chief among them is the inclusion of real life footballers and Arsenal manager George Allison in the cast of characters. It is a neat touch that certainly helps to sell the story’s background though I am not sure that the Police would be quite so quick to dismiss the idea that any of the Arsenal players or staff could have been involved!
Inspector Slade’s focus instead falls squarely on the players and staff of the Trojans who, being amateurs, come from an interesting variety of backgrounds. Doyce was a newcomer to the team and does not seem to have been popular but he shared a business with a teammate and had played alongside several members of the squad on other amateur teams.
Slade is a relatively straightforward sleuth, lacking in any strong defining characteristics. Whether that reflects that the character had already been around for some time prior to this book’s publication or whether that was simply Gribble’s preferred writing style it is hard to say from this alone but I appreciated that he has a methodical, calm approach to solving this case which is entertaining and easy to follow.
There are several characters with strong motives to kill Doyce but one in particular stands out early in the proceedings. Everything seems to be pointing in that one suspect’s direction but rather than making Slade feel comfortable making an arrest, he feels it is almost too tidy to be natural, asking his superiors for permission to extend his inquiries for a few days before making his arrest.
Looking beyond the most obvious suspect, Gribble creates an interesting cast of characters for us to consider as killers. In an interesting twist on the whodunit formula, the means and a possible motive becomes clear relatively early in the case but we cannot tell which of the characters that motive would belong to. In addition, Gribble also allows us to listen in on a few conversations between those characters after Slade leaves the room so we are aware of ways in which they are attempting to manipulate the situation.
For the most part the mystery is fairly clued although there is an element of the solution that Slade reveals that helped him identify the killer that the reader has no real way of knowing. In other respects though I think it plays fair and while the solution is relatively simple, I do think that the explanation given is quite satisfying and I did enjoy the use of a trap element that is set near the end of the novel.
As much as I enjoyed the novel I cannot claim it is entirely successful. While the reveal of the killer’s identity may surprise some readers, the methodical analysis of the case means that there are few surprises for the alert reader in the second half of the novel. I would also add that the striking premise of a player being murdered in a stadium full of tens of thousands of witnesses is not entirely realized or referred to.
The positives however far outweigh those negatives and make this a novel that I think works whether you are a fan of the sport or not. I would certainly suggest that those who do not care for the beautiful game should not be put off by the subject matter – there is a strong and entertaining mystery novel to be found here and though not perfect, it is an entertaining and colorful read. It certainly makes me feel more excited about the prospect of reading other works by Leonard Gribble and if anyone has any experience with this author and can make any recommendations for other titles to try I would be grateful!
Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 10.