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April, 1976. Ted Dexter completed his crime novel ‘Testkill’, written in collaboration with Clifford Mankins. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the book which mixed cricket and murder mystery and was released on the first day of the 1976 Test series between England and West Indies.
In 1974-75, the fearsome duo of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had blown the England batsmen away in the Test matches Down Under. Ted Dexter had last played Australia during the victorious Test at The Oval in 1968. When the Englishmen had toured in 1970-71, the charismatic former captain had flown his own twin prop aircraft, family on board, all the way from London to Brisbane in the course of a single day. And then he had sauntered into the commentary box to air his views on the game to the eager listeners around the cricket world.
Dexter’s adventure had not been in vain. Under Ray Illingworth, England had regained the Ashes. Later, he had watched the team defend the urn during the hotly contested summer of 1972.
However, in 1974-75, the batsmen had no answer to the sustained menace of Lillee and the lightning pace of Thomson. All Dexter could do was watch as Mike Denness and his men were vanquished 4-1. Lord Ted had treated the fastest bowlers of his day with a degree of disdain they did not often deserve. But, now he only shook his head in dismay.
Perhaps all this led him to demonstrate that the pen was mightier than the willow.
Dexter penned a racy crime thriller, originally named High Noon and Lord’s and later released as Testkill. In the book a hostile Australian fast bowler named Fitzgerald is killed while in the midst of an intimidating spell during the first day of a Test match at Lord’s. Thus perhaps the Sussex maestro got back at the Australian bowlers by squashing one of them between the covers.
Dexter’s partner on the tricky wicket of crime fiction was Clifford Mankins, the sports editor of Observer. Completed in April 1976, the book was released on the opening day of the Nottingham Test against West Indies.
The story is narrated in first person by Jack Stanton, a former England captain who now writes on the game for newspapers. The similarities with Dexter are almost inescapable.
The first chapter is titled ‘Thursday’ as per the traditional opening day of the Lord’s Test. And in it, Fitzgerald, a left-handed Australian fast bowler, starts the proceedings with the new ball displaying characteristic hostility. He dismisses one batsman and strikes another with a lifter, forcing him to retire hurt.
After the tea break, however, he turns listless, with the life strangely sucked out of his action. His feet drag, movements become uncoordinated. And finally, on page 32, he runs into bowl and the resulting action is described as: “he 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.” He is pronounced dead, killed by poison administered in his tea.
Thus Dexter, with Mankins as his accomplice, murdered the fast bowler as early as in the third session of the Test match. The unravelling of this crime, in the atmosphere of Test cricket and the associated London social life, forms the remainder of this novel.
Did not really bowl them over
Lord Ted, the champion entertainer at the crease, fell quite short of matching his batting feats with his typewriter. As a crime thriller, the book turns out to be eminently forgettable.
Weighed down by the sheer number of characters the plot struggles to free itself and flow. The 21 remaining cricketers, the press contingent, the officials of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), several fans and a few glamorous women associated with the cricketing scene — all qualify as suspects. As a result, the story staggers, stumbles, stutters and is stifled. Ultimately, when the methods and motive of murder are revealed, they are shocking only because they are intolerably insipid and unfair to the reader.
The redeeming features of the book lie elsewhere, and are perhaps visible only to the incorrigibly devoted aficionado of the game. The ex-captain turned journalist Stanton is of course eminently recognisable as a non-flattering image of Dexter himself. When one of the characters is knocked down by a car, it somehow echoes Dexter’s own debilitating injury — when he ended up pinned to a warehouse door while pushing his own Jaguar.
The scenes and the interactions between ex-cricketers, journalists, socialites and MCC members ring out more than true. A disclaimer at the beginning of the book reads, “None of the characters described in the novel, even when holding an official position, nor any cricketers described as playing in the Test match are intended as portraits of living persons.” However, the MCC President Phillips Brooke-Stanley does seem to have a lot in common with Gubby Allen.
Test cricket in the English summer during the 1970s, with the cricket-centered social evenings, are depicted exactly as Dexter knew it, and thereby we are assured of absolute accuracy.
From the point of view of the sensation associated with a murder mystery, the book is a terrible failure, but it perhaps compensates somewhat through rather detailed descriptions of lesbian love-making. Yes, it does boggle the imagination to think of Dexter writing the same.
The book was not a runaway success when it was published, but neither was it a disheartening failure. Indeed, Mankins and Dexter teamed up again to write another mystery novel titled Deadly Putter, this time centered around the other sport Dexter loved and excelled in — golf.
Readers looking for a good whodunit with cricket thrown into the mix would find plenty of better alternatives from Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers, to the relatively recent An Uncertain Death by Carolyn Morwood. Denzil Batchelor, Hal Pink, Alfred Tack and Julian Symons have all dabbled in mixing Test matches and murders, while Josephine Bell, Clifford Witting, Nicholas Blake and Nancy Spain have formed cocktails of crime and school cricket. Authors of the calibre of CP Snow and HRF Keating have occasionally made their detectives take a break from the rigours of detection and venture into the cricket grounds. And if one does not mind the protagonist on the other side of the law, nothing can beat EW Hornung’s Raffles stories. Even Carter Dickson’s Skeleton in the Clock featured a cricket bat as the murder weapon.
In short, there are plenty of better options for the lovers of literature. However, if murder is secondary and the insights into the world of cricket take precedence, this is indeed a good book to swallow.
But, if the motivation of Dexter was indeed to get back at the fast bowlers, Testkill did not quite serve its purpose.
As stated earlier, it was released on the first day of England’s 1976 Test series against West Indies. That was the infamous ‘grovel’ showdown in which Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and the others bounced, battered and bruised the English batsmen into submission.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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