Thursday, February 12, 2009



I have a very large collection of sports mysteries. They vary widely in quality, but among the best (not necessarily Dick Francis level, but among the best of the rest) are Jack Bickham’s tennis/spy series featuring reluctant agent Brad Smith.

I Spy with Culp and Crosby were the first to perceive of an international tennis star as a spy, but really did little but pay lip service to Culp’s tennis cover and Cosby’s tennis trainer cover during the series. Bickham does an excellent job of integrating the international tennis scene into each of the six books in his series.

Here’s the write up from the first in the series, Tiebreaker, from 1989:

Brad Smith doesn’t play tennis these days except in celebrity pro-am tournaments. He can still be found courtside, though, in his new role as a journalist. And, sometimes in and old function: As a contract worker for the intelligence community. The world of international tennis is the perfect cover, and has been since Brad’s days as a Wimbledon champion.

It is for the CIA that Smith goes to Belgrade, for the first major championship to be played there. He liked the idea of the trip and liked his target even more: Danisa Lechova, young, beautiful, a brilliant tennis player…and a woman who must be brought out from behind the Iron Curtain.

Too late, Brad realizes that the game of espionage is much like tennis – in order to win, you have to set up your opponent.

Lechova has to come over because her brother, a KGB operative wants to defect – but only if she is free. The first problem is, she doesn’t know she has a brother.

The second problem is Brad has been set up – he’s playing the net and there’s no one to protect his baseline.

Ahh, the days of the KGB the Iron Curtain and defecting spies – don’t you miss ‘em? Bickham’s prose is readable and his character likable. As the series went on, tennis became an even more integral part of each story – unlike most sports mystery series where the sport often takes more and more of a back seat.

The books are also remarkable for Bickham’s alternating chapters of first and third person narratives – experimental in it’s time, and relatively successful.

The Brad Smith Tennis Mysteries:

Breakfast At Wimbledon
Double Fault
The Davis Cup Conspiracy


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have to admit I don't think I've ever read a sports' related mystery except for Dick Francis. Thanks, Paul.

Ben Boulden said...

The Brad Smith novels were terrific. Bickham did an excellent job mixing the tennis with the mystery/thriller elements. I especially enjoyed the recurring tennis stars--both fictional and real--that he infused into the plot and allowed (the fictional particularly) the reader to get to know.

All six of the novels are excellent, but my favorites are: DROPSHOT, BREAKFAST AT WIMBLEDON, and DOUBLE FAULT.