Ray Lee

To bridge or not to bridge

Bridge novels are an interesting genre.  Most of them are murder mysteries of some shape or form, and in these the author has a fundamental decision to make: whether to include any actual bridge or not.  There are three camps:  none at all, lots, and the middle ground – one or two token deals.

Firmly in the first group are some of the early ones, like C.C. Nicolet’s Death of a Bridge Expert and AnneAustin’s Murder at the Bridge Table. In Evelyn Berckman’s A Simple Case of Ill Will a bridge club owner is murdered, while B.H. Friedman’s Yarborough is a dark psychological novel, but not a mystery. Two famous mystery novelists wrote about bridge: S.S. van Dine, in The Benson Murder Case, offered a solution to the real-life never-solved murder of whist and bridge expert James Elwell; Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table is a locked-room murder revolving around a rubber bridge game, and the bridge is integral to the solution – but no deal is ever shown.  Not one of these books contains a single bridge hand!  I remember when Jim Priebe was embarking on his first Art Fraser mystery, Takeout Double, we had several long discussions about whether to include hands, and eventually decided not to, in the hope that we could widen the book’s appeal beyond bridge addicts.

In the ‘small amount’ camp we have authors such as Susan Moody, who has written a series of successful novels (Death Takes a Hand etc.) featuring a bridge teacher.  Paul Bennett’s thrillers (Due Diligence etc.) star a kickass bridge-playing accountant (!) and usually include one or two deals, but the bridge is not really relevant to the main story.   Likewise Shirley Presberg (Death by Contract, etc.), whose self-published books again tend to feature only a deal or two.

Finally, in Ken Allan’s Deadly Endplay (2008, Green Spade Books), we have a bridge mystery with more bridge than mystery.  This one is full of deals, from some very simple ones (the local expert is explaining something to his novice partner) to some complex ones, including a modertely difficult double-dummy problem.  These are relevant to to the story largely because the author uses the bridge club to develop his characters (while admitting that their bridge personalities often are very different from their everyday ones).  He also builds the plot around a specific tactic (the ‘deadly endplay’ of the title) which is eventually used somewhat unconvincingly in the solution of the mystery.

It’s a curious mystery in that there’s no real detective or cop to follow – indeed, there are so many points of view offered that it makes it hard for the reader to engage with the characters.  There’s also no murder – just a suspicious death – and even at the end you’re not really sure there was in fact a murder.  The eventual ‘unmasking’ of the only suspect, and his confession, are the weakest part of the plot, and it’s not really a surprise to learn that the Crown eventually drop the prosecution for lack of evidence.

We do learn a lot about life in a small rural town, and even more about gardening and farming: from the name of the imprint, I suspect these are the author’s primary passions.  In the end, we sort of meander through the story, not sure whether we are reading a bridge book or a mystery.  The author may be not be too certain either, since despite the fairly highly level (and quantity) of the bridge content, he feels it necessary to explain things like how a duplicate game works.

The most interesting feature of the book, and definitely the one involving the best writing, is the pseudo ‘bridge column’ from the local paper, which appears every other chapter or so.  This is written by one of the characters under a nom de plume — I’m not sure why, since everyone knows who the writer is, but the idea is that it gives her a chance to adopt a different persona from her everyday one.  Emerging from her usual non-confrontational mien, she takes the opportunity to poke fun at some of the more pompous local experts.  Unlike most bridge columns, this one doesn’t feature brilliant plays so much as stratagems that worked and that showed up someone in a good or bad light.  At their best, they are wickedly funny, and alone make the book well worth picking up. I’d like to see more of Mr. Allan writing as ‘Jane Seabrook’.

I wonder whether it’s possible to put together a Jane Austen style novel purely out of bridge columns?  Just a thought J


5 Comments

Gerald KoonceAugust 6th, 2009 at 2:29 am

Two of my favorites in the lots of bridge category are the series of Jake Winkman books by Don Von Elsner and the two Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective novels by Frank Thomas.

Von Elsner was an Hawaiian expert (and Bridge World Master Solvers panelist) whose Jack Winkman was a bridge pro who reluctantly solves murders while playing in major bridge tournaments. The hands only somewhat further the plot but the details of professional bridge in the ’60s are priceless.

Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective, is about what you expect, Holmes displaying his detective skills at the bridge table while also solving crimes, as well as “inventing” Stayman and a number of other modern conventions and treatments.

Sally SparrowAugust 6th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

I very much enjoyed Bridge Behind Bars (Julian Pottage/Nick Smith) and thought it worked very well in the setting of a prison, with no mystery to speak of, just some pretty “shady deals.” I found this allowed you to really connect to the characters, each of them having their own set of “issues” to overcome. The humor of these burly men playing bridge in prison, and plight of the main character (locked up away from his kids) made the book a delightful read.

This has me wondering why it is that most bridge novels are mystery novels (other than the prolific David Bird who seems to have pulled off almost every setting you could think of). Maybe what we enjoy about bridge we enjoy about a good mystery: solving the mystery of each hand and playing “detective.” I like the idea of a Jane Austen-style bridge novel, people fighting one another for their place in society, defying “convention” etc. How about a sci-fi novel: the bridge of the future?

Dave Memphis MOJOAugust 6th, 2009 at 1:46 pm

I thoroughly enjoyed Allan’s book (Deadly Endplay), and was disappointed to see it got a less-than-stellar review in the August (2009) issue of Bridge World.

I think most bridge books follow the here’s the problem, now here’s the answer formula, and anything that varies doesn’t get as much credit as it should.

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