As promised, the first installment of what may prove to be an occasional series highlighting authors who have, for whatever reasons, not been heard from in several years. Meet Alison Gordon and her Kate Henry novels after the jump.
If there’s one subgenre that always attracts my interest, it’s the baseball book. Non-fiction or novel, short story or essay, I’m a huge sucker for baseball in print. Bill James was an early idol of mine; Jim Bouton’s BALL FOUR slaked any gossip need I had at the time, and Jane Leavy’s biography of Sandy Koufax ranks amongst the best books—not just sports books—I have ever read (her lone novel, SQUEEZE PLAY, is pretty damned good as well.) I could go on, but I’d rather get to the point: a few years ago, early in my mystery-reading days, I came across (or someone recommended, I don’t remember anymore) a novel by Alison Gordon. Immediately, my ears perked up, because I recalled her as a sportswriter, covering the baseball beat for the Toronto Star in the early Blue Jay years. Not an easy job, considering there hadn’t been any female sportswriter in the locker room prior to Gordon’s initial foray way back in 1979. But Gordon covered the beat with dignity, humor and aplomb, translating her experiences into FOUL BALLS (1985), an account of her first five years on the job.
When Gordon turned her hand to fiction, she certainly took the adage of “write what you know” and worked within those limits, introducing sportswriter Kate Henry in THE DEAD PULL HITTER (1988). Kate, fortysomething, opinionated, and very, very Canadian, covers the daily grind of baseball, specifically the Toronto Titans and their cast of loonies. There’s lots of local color and sharp dialogue that showcases the rampant sexism that existed (and no doubt still exists) in the locker rooms when a female reporter’s trying to do her job the best she can, and a healthy dose of insider feeling as Kate relates to her fellow journos. The mystery element is almost an afterthought—the designated hitter and a star pitcher end up dead during the pennant race and Kate sifts through blackmail threats, sordid pasts and adversarial cops to find the killer—and the clues are telegraphed a little too early. But Kate’s an extremely likeable character and when I first read the book five years or so ago, I thought she was smart, intelligent, witty and grounded, hardly a “superheroine” or a guy in a skirt.
In due course I sought out the rest of the series. SAFE AT HOME (1990) has the parallel plots of a child killer on the loose and a Titans star deciding to come out, risking criticism and revulsion by fans and fellow teammates. Gordon handles this thread with compassion and concern, and it’s interesting (and perhaps sad) that almost 15 years later, no active baseball player is openly gay. The stigma still exists. NIGHT GAME (1992) addresses what happens when a woman behaves in accordance with the locker room stereotype of reporters—that is, sleeps around with all the ballplayers—and ends up dead. Interestingly, I remembered this instalment as my favourite from my first readthrough, but revisiting it highlighted the plot holes in more detail. Still, what comes through is Gordon’s evoking of the hopeful attitude of spring training, and gives Kate a locale change by transplanting her to Florida.
By the time STRIKING OUT (1995) appeared in bookstores, Gordon’s plotting had improved considerably, and she made the smart decision to distance Kate from the goings-on of reporting and baseball. Set in 1994, the baseball strike has begun and she’s at loose ends. A homeless woman has set herself up in the alley behind Kate’s house, befriended by neighbourhood kids, and seems comfortable enough, until she mysteriously disappears. Mixing in family crises, abortion clinics, and Kate’s hesitancy about commitment to her longtime police detective boyfriend, Gordon moves the book at a fast clip while throwing in a healthy dose of opinionated social commentary. Though the baseball aspect has diminished, it is to Gordon’s credit that she decided to stretch herself and push the constraints a little further out in order to improve as a writer. The trend continued with PRAIRIE HARDBALL (1997) which takes Kate completely out of Toronto and off to rural Alberta to revisit her childhood roots, all the while investigating the murders of a couple of former members of a long-ago women’s baseball team. The baseball connection is still there but again, the setting, family history, and Kate’s relationships are at the forefront.
Ultimately, Alison Gordon’s books succeed because they are character-driven, and Kate’s background and interests kept me reading, both a few years ago and more recently when I revisited the books to write this piece. I suppose if Gordon’s books remind me of anyone, it’s Laura Lippman in her paperback original days. I wonder if, had she had the chance, Gordon would have delivered a standalone novel that was as thought-provoking and incisive as EVERY SECRET THING was. But that’s a question that may be left unanswered. As are so many: Will Kate Henry make a return visit? What happened to curtail the series? And more importantly, is Gordon still writing at all?
Gordon developed something of a rep a few years back as one of the more colourful crime writers around. Her acerbic humor graced the DorothyL and RARA-AVIS mailing lists in the mid-to-late 90s, and she was good-naturedly dubbed the “Olde Tart of the Tart Noir gang (although she wasn’t included in the 2002 anthology.) I never met her, but not long after posting a query about her whereabouts on another list in late 2000, I received an email from her that explained she had started a sixth Henry novel, didn’t like it, and was working on something else. But nothing appeared, and time has marched on.
So here I go, asking the same question again…and wondering if, perhaps, the answer remains the same.