The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

Up the Gunners!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Top football team Arsenal is playing a friendly against the Trojans – an amateur team who have been on an amazing winning streak and are thrilled to be taking on the professionals. The ground is jam-packed – seventy thousand spectators have crammed themselves onto the terraces, mostly Arsenal fans but plenty hoping the Trojans will play well and provide an exciting match. But shortly into the second half, the Trojans’ newest player, right-half John Doyce, collapses and has to be carried off the field. The game continues, with neither players nor crowd knowing that in the treatment room a desperate battle is being carried on to save Doyce’s life. By the time the final whistle is blown, the battle has been lost…

In a lot of ways, this is a standard murder mystery with a Scotland Yard Inspector as detective. But what makes it unique is that it’s set amid the real Arsenal team of its time of writing – 1939 – and the actual players and manager appear in the book. Gribble has also had access to behind the scenes at the stadium, and provides what feels like an authentic picture of what it would have been like playing or working for a top club back then, in the days when even professional sides still had players who had “real” jobs as well as their sporting careers.

I’m not a big football fan, but it’s impossible to be British and not have a reasonable knowledge of the game, and I enjoyed the look back at a time when boys wanted to play for their local teams for the glory of the game, rather than to become fabulously wealthy celebrities with their own clothing label and drug habit – back when sportspeople were actually sporting. It also brought back memories of how terrifying exhilarating it was to be packed like sardines in an overfull stadium, the vast majority of people standing on the terraces with only the posh folk sitting in the stands (yeah, strange terminology, I know), and the horror excitement of the massive surge forward when your team scored. Those days are gone – the major disasters of the seventies and eighties pushed stadiums to become all-seater, so younger fans won’t ever have had that experience – I don’t know whether that makes them lucky or unlucky, to be honest.

Fortunately, however, the book gets out of the football stadium before my reminiscences turned to boredom, and the plot revolves around the personal lives of the players rather than their sporting careers. Unsurprisingly, Gribble’s victim is one of the fictional Trojan players, and the real players and staff at Arsenal play only minor roles. I think it’s also safe to say that the real people can be discounted as suspects! Doyce was an unpleasant chap with a reputation as a womaniser and had given several of his team-mates and the staff of the Trojans cause to dislike him. He’d only joined the club a week earlier, but several of them had played together before in another team, and another of the Trojans was his business partner. So there’s a good pool of suspects and some intriguing motives for Inspector Slade and Sergeant Clinton to investigate.

Inspector Slade is professional in his approach, but is helped along by his almost superhuman ability to make wild guesses that turn out to be correct. A couple of these were pretty ridiculous, in truth, and I felt they let the plotting down badly – with a little more work Gribble could have made these leaps a result of investigation rather than miraculous-level intuition. Otherwise, the plotting is pretty good, especially in the motivation, and on the whole I liked the characterisation although for the most part it’s not very in-depth. I debated whether it’s “fair-play” – in the introduction, Martin Edwards describes it that way – but I’m not wholly convinced. The explanation when it comes could have applied to several of the suspects – the vital piece of information that identifies the murderer wasn’t available to the reader. There are also odd plot holes, like people being married without their friends and colleagues knowing and people being engaged but no-one knowing to whom. Necessary for the plot to work, but unlikely…

Leonard Gribble

Overall then, I enjoyed this without being entirely convinced by the plotting. The evocative and well-written descriptions of attending a football match back in the days when it was a major weekly occasion in the lives of so much of working-class Britain – of doing the football “pools”, of trying to find out the results of rival matches once the game was over, of seventy thousand people all wending their way homewards very slowly on overcrowded buses and trains – entertained me far more than I anticipated, and I suspect would appeal even more to die-hard football fans (especially ones of a certain age). A walk down memory lane… and, as with so much vintage crime, fun as much for what it shows us about society as for the actual mystery element.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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36 thoughts on “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

  1. It sounds like a good story although I’m not a football fan at all and have never attended a game. I like the fact real people are included (not that I’d know who they are 😁) but it would be nice to look back, as you say, at a time before money in sport got completely ridiculous.

    • For someone who’s not a fan oddly I went to loads of games in my youth – first with my dad, then with various friends and boyfriends who were fans. So it was a real reminder for me – although it was about four decades later that I was going things were still pretty similar in a lot of ways, before the dramatic changes of the last few decades.

  2. Hmm..I know what you mean about plotholes, FictionFan. Still, it sounds like a very interesting look at the world of football at that time. And I like the fact that the story goes beyond just the game. I prefer it when the characters are more well-rounded than that. Oh, and I had to chuckle at your description of the players then versus now. There’s a lot of that among US sport stars, too. Some things travel very nicely…

    • Yes, I had just reached the point of beginning to find all the football stuff a bit tedious when he took us out of the stadium and started bringing in other people and motives, so I was glad of that. Ha – I fear I’m a little cynical about modern sports. I bet nobody used to feel they had to do drugs tests on Bunny Austin… 😉

    • I think it was all officially sanctioned by the club, probably as a kind of marketing ploy – not that Arsenal needed much marketing! But all the players gave their autographs which are reproduced in the book, and apparently the book was very well known among football fans for a long time (according to my football fan brother…)

  3. This sounds very British to me! Football (or soccer as we know it) isn’t a big deal in Canada but we can get pretty worked up over hockey so I can kind of imagine the intensity of it!

    • Totally British, and he got all the social aspects just right! At that time, football was almost entirely a working class sport – the posh people went to cricket or rugby. Now everybody watches everything, and it’s so much harder to work out people’s class from their sporting preferences… 😉

    • Yes, I think Arsenal officially sanctioned it and gave him access to behind the scenes, so to speak. So obviously it’s very complimentary about them all, but it still feels authentic…

  4. I”m pretty fascinated by the idea of reading a MYSTERY book that features real-life people! Not sure how that went down back then, but I can’t see it going over very well these days, that’s for sure.

    • It’s pretty unique! I think Arsenal officially sanctioned it, though, and gave him access to the players and staff, and he’s very complimentary about them all. It still feels pretty authentic though, and the stuff about what it was like to be in the crowd is great…

  5. Oh, I loved hearing about football and how the working class went to games weekly. I am thinking that’s changed much like our version of “football” with the ticket prices rising and the stadiums getting bigger and bigger? I’m glad you enjoyed the mystery overall, FF, and this sounds like a unique one.

    • Yes, football was definitely the working class sport back then, and fathers took their sons (and sometimes daughters, like me) to matches as soon as they could walk. But as you guess, it’s all changed now – ticket prices are ridiculous, so it’s out of the question for poorer people. I think our stadiums actually hold fewer people now because they had to change to all-seater – safer but less exciting, I suspect. I think most people watch their football on TV now.

  6. I’m going to have to point this one out to my son Domer — he’s a BIG Arsenal fan! I find “football” (soccer!) very frustrating to watch, but if running back and forth across a field for 90 minutes would make me as skinny as most of these players, well, I *might* give it a go! Then, again, maybe not!!!

    • Oh, if he’s an Arsenal fan, then this is a must! Apparently it’s well known among football fans (older ones anyway) – my brother recognised the title as soon as I mentioned it, and knew about it including the real team of the time. Haha – I used to be forced to play sometimes as a kid (usually by the same brother) and I must say it was all way too active for me even at that age! I’m definitely a sport watcher rather than player… 😉

    • Ha! It surprised me by how much it took me back to those days when I used to go to matches with various boyfriends and friends – I was always far more interested in watching the crowd than the game, I must admit…

      • Lovely! Sometimes I watch the crowd when the AFL (Australian Rules) is on tv, people get so passionate about the game that it is often more entertaining to watch their reactions than it is the game. Growing up, going to the footy was a family/community event, we saw everyone we knew there, cars ringed the boundary fence and afterwards in the club rooms there was a party 🙂

        • In my childhood, football was largely a sport for men, both playing and watching, so I was quite unusual in that my dad took me to a few games with my brother. By my teen years, girls were beginning to become fans so I had a couple of friends who’d drag me along, but I never became a real fan myself. Too cold and usually wet! I could never understand why the football season couldn’t be in summer… (which is slightly less cold and sometimes less wet… 😉 )

    • Oh, I didn’t know there was a film – I must try to get hold of it! Did it have the real players in it too? The book is certainly a great walk down memory lane for anyone old enough to remember going to matches before all-seater stadiums came in…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

      • Players from the Arsenal first team as well as the Manager appear in the film. All the football sequences were shot at Highbury.

        Also, Leslie Banks is brilliant as Inspector Slade. I’d find the film just to watch him.

        • Oh, that sounds great! I am off to hunt it down – thank you! I wonder if I wrote a book about a murder at Wimbledon if they’d let me hang out with Rafa and Andy… 😉

  7. I am glad that you enjoyed this overall. I remember having an issue with an action Slade takes at the end that the reader has no way of knowing but otherwise I think it is a pretty solid story and, like you, I enjoyed its depiction of a moment in time.

    • I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it – all the descriptions of what it was like going to a match back before all-seater stadiums were great and threw me back in time (not to the ’30s, I hasten to add, but things were much the same in my football watching days of the ’60s and ’70s…). The mystery didn’t work quite as well for me, but often with vintage crime it’s the snapshot of a moment in time I enjoy most.

  8. As I get as much enjoyment from the look at society in these classic crime fiction books this sounds worth reading for that alone. Had to smile at the contrast between the older generations and today’s in becoming a professional player 😏

    • That snapshot of a moment in time is definitely what appeals to me in most vintage crime, I’m discovering, especially when they tear themselves away from Oxford academia and write about something I can relate to. Ha – yes, I’m a little cynical about sport these day… I bet they never felt they had to drug test people back in the ’30s… 😉

  9. I’ve seen another positive review of this elsewhere, so it’s encouraging to see that you enjoyed it too. While I don’t support any particular team, I do enjoying watching football every now and again – pus the fact that I’e been to the old Highbury ground gives this an added appeal.

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