Writing a detective story with football as a background seems such a good idea that it’s surprising it hasn’t been done more often. Dick Francis, and before him Nat Gould, made an entire career writing crime stories based on horse racing, but football-themed crime stories seem thin on the ground.
There is though ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’, written by Leonard Gribble and first published by Harrap in 1939. It was made into a film later the same year and it’s perhaps the film that’s now better remembered than the book. My interest though comes neither from the film nor from the first printing of the book, but from its later issue as one of the early Services Editions for the British Armed Forces.
First though the story and its background. Arsenal were the dominant football team of the 1930s, winning the league title 5 times, including three consecutive wins in 1932-33, 1933-34 and 1934-35. They were managed by the great Herbert Chapman until his death in 1934 and from the 1934-35 season by George Allison. Both Chapman and Allison and many of the Arsenal team from those years would have been household names, as familiar as Jose Mourinho or Cristiano Ronaldo today. The story features all of them, with a significant role for the manager, George Allison, and the book starts with a page of autographs of all the team.
Without giving away any plot spoilers, the obvious difficulty is that real people featuring in a detective story can hardly be either the victim or the murderer (or the detective), and if they can’t be the murderer, it’s difficult to make them credible suspects either. So inevitably they have a limited role. To provide plenty of suspects, the author has to invent a fictional team for Arsenal to play against, and a more dysfunctional team you could hardly imagine, despite the author’s insistence that building the team has been a fantastic achievement.
Having been first published in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’ was an obvious candidate when the British Publishers’ Guild, an association of publishers, was looking for books that could be added to its series of Services Editions – paperbacks published for distribution to the armed forces. They wanted popular fiction, including crime fiction, and they wanted up-to-date books, preferably not previously published in paperback.
The first two books to be provided by Harrap were this one, published as volume S19 in the series, and ‘Murder at Wrides Park’ by J.S. Fletcher, published as volume S20, both books appearing in 1943. The print run was probably 50,000 copies of each book, but they are both almost impossible to find now. Even the reprint of ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’ printed in a wider format by The Amalgamated Press (possibly another 50,000 copies?), with spare copies sold on by W.H. Smith after the war, has almost completely disappeared. The printing history on the reprint is not updated, so still says 1943, but it is certainly later, probably 1946. The narrow first printing, printed by C. Tinling & Co. Ltd., is like all early Services Editions exceptionally rare (although sadly, probably not very valuable). My copy was found only after almost thirty years of searching.
When I did find it though, it came with a letter written by the author, and dated some 15 years later. Leonard Gribble seems to be answering a letter that asked for information about the pseudonyms he wrote under. He refuses to answer, saying he is bound by contractual terms, but refers his correspondent to Who’s Who. The modern equivalent, Wikipedia, suggests he wrote under a series of names including Leo Grex, Piers Marlowe, Bruce Sanders, Dexter Muir, Sterry Browning, Louis Grey and Landon Grant. Few of his other works though achieved the success of ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’, and he came back to the idea of football themed mysteries in 1950, publishing ‘They kidnapped Stanley Matthews’, again featuring Anthony Slade as the detective.