That '70s cricket circus
Fitzgerald, the Australian quick, had bowled a hostile spell with the new ball, taking one English wicket and forcing another batsman to leave the field after striking him near the heart with a vicious lifting delivery. He had seemed distracted, though, when he returned after lunch and was "listless" in his first two overs after tea, but it was the third over of the spell that proved critical. His first two deliveries were "sluggish". By the third, "his action disintegrated, the rhythm, control and co-ordination had vanished, his feet dragged and his arm drooped."
His next three balls were "drained of life and spirit" and it became apparent something was seriously wrong. He staggered in his run, "stumbled up, falling forward slightly, then with one final effort brought the ball up above his head. Then he crumpled and fell at the feet of the umpire. He lay quite still, clutching the ball in his outstretched hand." Fitzgerald was carried from the field, dead - murdered, it turned out, by poison administered at tea. It's not the most convincing set-up for a whodunit, but the least plausible aspect of Testkill is less the plot than the identity of the author. It's the work not of some jobbing hack, churning out a pulp page-turner to keep the royalties trickling in, but of the former England captain Ted Dexter.
He co-wrote the book with the former Observer sports editor Clifford Makins in 1976 (three years later they collaborated on a golfing equivalent, Deadly Putter) and it doesn't take a great leap to see the narrator, Jack Stanton, a former England captain turned journalist, as Dexter's representative in the book, doggedly investigating the crime while being threatened, on one occasion being beaten up with - what else? - a cricket bat. Similarly, when another character is run over by a car it's hard not to imagine whether Dexter was remembering the incident that effectively ended his career, when he was pinned against a door by his own Jaguar, breaking his leg.
I won't spoil it by revealing who was guilty, although really the plot, such as it is, is not the most interesting thing about the book - and is staggeringly implausible. Far, far more fascinating is the gloomy, oppressive atmosphere of a humid June in seventies London and the depiction of the life of the cricketer and journalist in the seventies, a constant round of booze, tawdry parties and extra-marital sex. Stanton fairly openly cohabits with his mistress, Julia, who has a flat conveniently close to Lord's, while his wife Peggy suffers relatively gamely in the background.
Sharing Julia's flat is Polly Parsons, who is described in far more detail than anyone else in the book. She was "a buxom and curvaceous woman of twenty-two. Her shape was firm and excellent… there was a touch of vulgarity about her that seemed, on first acquaintance, rather endearing. She had appeared on the cricket scene at the beginning of the season and had recently seen a lot of Julia." She was, in other words, a groupie who made herself available to pretty much any cricketer who wanted her and who, happily for the authors and their delight in describing "trembling buttocks", was bisexual.
Is this really what Dexter's life was like? Unconvincing as the murder and its investigation may be, the scenes in the press-box, the petty rivalry, the odd sense of boredom that settles on a group of men who have spent far too much time watching cricket in each other's company all rings horribly true. And that's perhaps the greatest oddity of the book. Whodunits of the classic Agatha Christie type are essentially crossword puzzles; it's a game of deceit, of people not being who they appear to be and deliberately casting suspicion on themselves. They're not meant to be taken seriously; there is a willing suspension of disbelief on both sides. The best ones tend to create a discrete world in which there are a limited number of suspects, all of whom seemingly have motive and/or opportunity.
Testkill fails as a mystery in part because the cast is too big - 22 players, plus journalists, MCC officials and lovers - and in part because the motive, when revealed, is so preposterous. But as a snapshot of the circus around cricket in the mid-seventies it seems to succeed brilliantly. Perhaps the drinking and the sex and the sense of tedium around the game itself (although this Test, which goes ahead despite the murder, builds to a thrilling conclusion) isn't actually realistic but, if not, that's almost a greater achievement because it feels so true.
Perhaps the murder was necessary to give the book a sense of purpose, but don't read it for that. Read it for the portrayal of seventies cricket in all its sordid naffness - and for the very weird sensation of Dexter matter-of-factly describing lesbian sex.
Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here