The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

Football? On the Ramblings??? Anyone who knows me will be boggling a little at the concept; because, despite having lived near a Big Footballing Town for some decades, I’m not really a fan of 22 men kicking a ball around a pitch… However, as this rather intriguing looking little book is part of the British Library Crime Classics series, I really felt I had to give it a look – and as a non-football fan I found it actually great fun!

Author Leonard Gribble was remarkably prolific; he wrote so many crime novels that he actually had to adopt several pseudonyms. “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” was originally published in 1939, and features Gribble’s regular detecting team of Detective Inspector Slade and Sgt. Clinton. However, as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction makes clear, the book has some very interesting aspects to it. For a start, the actual Arsenal squad of 1939 are featured in the book as characters! The book was launched as something of a film tie-in, as a movie of the book was also released in 1939 starring Leslie Banks as Slade. This is quite audacious and probably unusual marketing for the time, and the book also came with facsimiles of the squad’s signatures, which are reproduced in the BL edition. The film apparently also featured members of the team plus manager George Allison, so the whole thing tied together well!

The Arsenal crest in 1939

But what of the book as a detective novel? Well, it opens with the Gunners (ha!) taking on a fictitious amateur side, the Trojans, in a friendly match at Highbury (then the Arsenal home ground). However, halfway through the match, one of the players drops dead on the pitch (fortunately, not a real Arsenal man but one of the Trojans…) It soon transpires that John Doyce has been murdered; but how on earth could that happen in the middle of a match, with no obvious weapon in sight? The cause of death is eventually tracked down, but the murderer is more elusive, and there are several candidates as Doyce was a womaniser and not a popular man. One of the other players has no reason to like Doyce, as the latter was messing around with his girlfriend. However, there are links to a death in the past, and it will take all of Slade’s ingenuity to solve the crime and save the name of The Beautiful Game from being dragged through the mud.

The dispersal of seventy thousand spectators is not achieved in a few minutes. At the top of Highbury Hill foot and mounted police controlled the queues invading the Arsenal Station of the Underground. More mounted police kept the crowd in Avenell Road on the move. All the tributary roads were choked with cars that had been parked throughout the game. A score of taxi-drivers who had seen an opportunity of combining business with pleasure that afternoon now tried to work their cabs through the throng, which took singularly small notice of honking horns and verbal exasperation. Peanut vendors and newsboys were exercising their lungs and taking a steady flow of coppers for their trouble. Over the crown hung a pall of tobacco smoke and dust.

“Arsenal…” was a really enjoyable mystery which rattled along at a good pace, with plenty of sleuthing, not too much football, a bit of romance on the side and plenty of characters with axes to grind. Slade and Clinton, in particular, made an entertaining team, with Clinton sticking obstinately to what seemed to him the obvious solution while Slade went off into the psychology of the case and the suspects. The latter is probably the best drawn character in the book, although I was quite fond of several of the main Trojan characters who by necessity took a more prominent position in the book; the Arsenal team were mainly more what you would call bit parts, apart from real-life manager George Allison who took quite a leading role. I had a wee inkling of who the murderer might be about halfway through, although I wasn’t sure, and although I turned out to be right the ending was nevertheless very satisfying.

“Preposterous?” Slade shrugged. “Read the evidence of most murder trials which result in a verdict of guilty. Most of it is preposterous. Because a great deal of human behaviour is preposterous. But we rarely confess the fact.”

So “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” ended up being a worthy addition to the BLCC series. The writing may occasionally lack the sophistication of, say, a Sayers, but it makes up for this with a twisty plot, energetic action and some particularly effective prose when scene-setting. The clever publicity stunt of tying the book in with the film (which also featured the Arsenal squad) gives it an extra frisson, but this element doesn’t mean you have to like football to enjoy the book (although if you’re a fan of the game or Arsenal it will be a bit more special). It’s a fun, entertaining read, and ideal for transporting you back to times when football and its followers were less confrontational (excluding the odd murder…); also to when the concept of paying footballers stupid, stupid money would have seemed ridiculous. I did wonder whether the publication date was significant; the book came out in 1939 (the film was the November of that year), a time when the world was entering a period of turmoil and conflict, and it may have been felt that football was something to pull the nation together.

So this was a really good read and I suppose I should come clean here: although I really have no time for football nowadays, back when I was 10 I had a brief phase of following the game, and Arsenal were my team! I soon grew out of it, but nevertheless I suppose I should have been reading this book whilst cheering on Arsenal! Up the Gunners!! :))

NB – if you understand what I’m on about with the heading of this post, you’re obviously as old as I am…. πŸ˜‰

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