The master of suspense took a break from his usual mystery, crime, and thriller books to write Playing for Pizza; a football story hatched as he researched settings for another novel.
Playing for Pizza tracks a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in what turns out to be a life lesson – the question is, will he learn?
Poor Rick Dockery. With only minutes left to play, in the AFC Championship game, Dockery comes in as Quarterback with a 17- point lead and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Rick ends up in a hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered along with the loss. His agent, Arnie, and the duty nurse discourage him from remembering too much of what had happened, but eventually, poor Rick does remember and then learns that virulent Cleveland fans want to storm the hospital and dismember him – or at least run him out of town on a rail. In addition to the disaster, his agent informs him that the Browns have released him and no other team wants him – he is unemployable in the NFL, but Rick isn’t done with football – he can’t be; it’s all he knows.
Dubbed by an unforgiving and vicious press as “the greatest goat in the history of professional sports,” Rick has hit rock bottom. His agent suggests that it might be time to find another profession; Dockery, however, refuses to give up. Arnie is running out of patience and ideas, not to mention the fact that he isn’t making any money representing the disgraced Quarterback, yet he makes “one more call,” to an old buddy.
Coach Russo is looking for a QB for the Panthers—of Parma, Italy. They play at a Division 3 level – maybe. Russo wants an American QB to lead his team of tough Italians, whose professions range from truck drivers to airline pilots and everything in-between. These men hold full-time jobs and play for love of the game, and pizza! As one of the three Americans allowed on any team in Italy, Rick will be provided with a car, rent money and a very small salary – nowhere near the pay scale in the NFL.
With no other options available, feeling the pressure to get out of the States, filled with resentment and self-pity, Rick Dockery accepts the job. He flies off to a country he barely knows exists and a city he’d never heard of before.
The coach meets him at the airport and immediately realizes that Dockery is in for a few shocks. Coach Russo crash courses Rick in Italian football. The Panthers are on an eight-game schedule with play-offs and a shot at the Italian Super Bowl. At the same time, Rick must cope with stick-shift small cars, bumper-to-bumper parking, and the culture of food, wine, and opera– things about which Rick Dockery knows nothing. By his own admission, his education consisted of football, Phys. Ed., more football, and cheerleaders.
Rick begins the process of adjusting to his new circumstances and his new team. Secretly, he believes he would be hiding out in Parma for a while and would return to the States after other NFL teams forgot his humiliation and offered him a spot.
One vicious reporter from Cleveland, however, finds out where Dockery is and has no intention of allowing him any salvation in football. The reporter stalks him and reports back to the Cleveland Post on Dockery’s progress, turning anything Dockery does well into a series of “lucky breaks.”
Throughout, we watch Dockery cope with the culture shock of a completely alien environment while melding with teammates who are unlike any he’d ever encountered in the States and somehow, play his best football.
Sometimes the story feels like a travel guide through northern Italy and a play-by-play in football, but it’s told through the eyes of a lost soul on a life journey. Dockery learns that in Italy, although “it (footfall) was just a club sport, winning meant something – commitment meant even more.”
By the end of Rick’s story, we see a man emerge from the immature self-absorbed, culturally deficient boy/man who’d arrived in a foreign country only a few weeks before. Moreover, if you are a football fan, the last game is a heart-stopper.
There’s no fairy-tale ending here. Dockery has choices to make, but he finds confidence, becomes comfortable in his own skin, and learns the real meaning of playing for pizza.
It’s not a new release, but it’s still a great summer read.
Education is learning
what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.
– Daniel J. Boorstin
There are many people who have never heard of Daniel J. Boorstin. You may not know of him or his lifetime of work. Boorstin is one of a group of modern historians who rose to prominence during the 1950s.
Boorstin was born in 1914 and died in 2004, at the age of 89. He was a man of many talents, but in terms of authorship and approach he was truly unique. To study all his work would take a lifetime.
He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for the last book of a trilogy he titled The Americans. The trilogy included: The Colonial Experience (1958), The National Experience (1965), and The Democratic Experience (1973).
Boorstin’s gift was his laser-like insight and unrivaled ability of connectedness. He was adept at evaluating trends and society, as well as history, and combining both into highly readable chronologies. His writing details historical events, social change, progress, and scholarly viewpoints including the history of America and the world. To say that Boorstin was the consummate researcher is an understatement.
Not only was Boorstin adept at interconnecting facts, people, places, inventions, and abstract concepts into a smooth and interconnected whole, no one that I am aware of has written with the same clarity or ability as a historian – Boorstin has no equal. He was also such a prolific writer; a published annotated bibliography was produced comprised solely of his work in 2000.
Daniel J. Boorstin is what is called “a place keeper.” He is the type of historical and social writer who sees the essential in the mundane, marks it, explains it, and knows the effect the event had at its inception as well as the impact it could or would have in the future. Boorstin was one of the first to literally name certain social conditions. He was the first to coin, “image”, the “non-event” and the “celebrity”, all concepts either invented, or first dissected, by him.” (Hodgson, 2004).
But who was this man?
Boorstin was born in 1914 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Russian Jewish Immigrants. His father was an attorney who represented Leo Frank, and despite being found innocent of the rape and murder of a young girl, Frank was later lynched by The Ku Klux Klan. Anti-Semitism forced the Boorstin family to relocate to Oklahoma.
After completing his early schooling, Boorstin went first to Harvard Law, graduated, then studied at Balliol College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. During 1938, he joined the Communist Party for one year. He dropped his affiliation when Russia and Germany invaded Poland. He never returned to the Communist Party, and fully denounced it when questioned in later years.
He received his doctorate at Yale and was hired as a professor at Swarthmore College in 1942. Later, Boorstin became a professor at the University of Chicago, holding that position for twenty-five years. He later attained the position of “Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions,” at the University of Cambridge. In 1974, he became the Librarian of Congress upon the nomination of then President Gerald Ford, and retained that position for a full twelve years.
He married Ruth Frankel, in 1941. Their marriage was a solid and lasted the rest of their lives. Ruth was also Boorstin’s editor. “Without her,” he was quoted as saying, “I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.”
Boorstin is known best for the trilogy, The Americans, however a second well-known trilogy spanned an all-encompassing study of man and the world in which he lives. That trilogy included The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination and The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World Knowledge Trilogy.
These works are maps from where man began, his discoveries along the way, the curves and changes that mark his historical progress, and the effects these had upon society. They are important because Boorstin is a place finder and a place keeper who shows our progress as a country, society, and habitants of this large world that we all are a part – and guides us to something better in ourselves. These works are lasting works. We can all learn something from Boorstin’s achievements.
Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely–literary and genre fiction, autobiography and memoir, humor, psychology, philosophy, and religion among them. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.
Her sheer imagination, her complex and nearly crazy—yet convincing—plots, have won Fred Vargas three International Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers Association for her policiers, or police procedurals. Vargas is the nom de plume of Fréderique Audoin-Rouzeau, a French medieval historian and archeologist (born in Paris 1952) who worked at the Institut Pasteur. Vargas provides a vividly unusual police environment with her Paris-based Serious Crime Squad, headed by Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. I immediately fell for her idiosyncratic protagonist—Adamsberg is Pyrenees born, left handed, a water-colorist who paints in order to puzzle out murder inquiries, and who alternately frustrates and mesmerizes his staff through his unconventional thinking. Vargas has steadily added a cadre of interesting characters to Adamsberg’s team, each quite odd in his or her own way (not forgetting the large white cat which sleeps atop the copier and must be carried to its food bowl—a cat which demonstrates great heroism in This Night’s Foul Work) (tr. 2008).
Aside from some rare omniscient inserts, Vargas tells her stories primarily through the eyes of the police characters, primarily Adamsberg. We see Adamsberg’s chief lieutenant, Commandant Adrien Danglard, through Adamsberg’s eyes. Danglard is OCD, possessed of nearly photographic memory, a polymath with vast knowledge of science and history, subject to anxiety attacks. At the beginning of An Uncertain Place (tr. 2011) Adamsberg is racing for the Eurostar to meet Danglard and board the Chunnel for a conference in London when he gets Danglard’s text:
“Rdv 80 min GdNord Eurostar gate. Fckin tnnl. Have smart jkt + tie 4 U.”
In this abbreviated text Vargas telegraphs Danglard’s character and his relationship to Adamsberg. We instantly see that Danglard is clock-bound, controlling in his insistence on proper attire for Adamsberg (correctly predicting his boss’s over-casual packing), and terrified of traveling under the Channel.
Vargas develops her protagonist and his foil by giving us each character’s point of view on the other’s mental processes. In An Uncertain Place, Adamsberg sees Danglard like this:
Adamsberg imagined Danglard’s mind as a block of fine limestone, where rain, in other words questions, had hollowed out countless basins in which his worries gathered, unresolved. Every day, three or four of these basins were active simultaneously.
On the other hand, Danglard often despairs of Adamsberg’s unconventional mental processes:
It was less easy to seize hold of him when his mental equipment was dislocated into several moving parts, which was his usual state. But it became completely impossible when this state intensified to the point of dispersal…Adamsberg at such times seemed to move like a diver, his body and mind swooping gracefully without any precise objective. His eyes followed the movement, taking on the look of dark brown algae and conveying to his interlocutor a sensation of indeterminacy, flow, non-existence. To accompany Adamsberg in these extremes…was like swimming into deep water…
Indeed, the members of Adamsberg’s squad are split on his intuitive approach, which they call “cloud-shoveling.” Many in the squad would frankly prefer a more Cartesian, rationalist approach. An Uncertain Place begins with the discovery of severed feet (i.e. from corpses) lined up in pairs of French shoes at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London. (I told you the plots are wild.) Back in Paris, when Adamsberg eventually connects the severed feet to a Serbian legend tinged with vampirism, part of his squad rebels:
At this point, the antagonism which divided the members of the squad resurfaced: the materialist positivists were seriously annoyed by Adamsberg’s vague wanderings, sometimes to the point of rebellion, while the more conciliatory group did not object to a spot of cloud-shovelling from time to time.
Adamsberg tries to convince the magnificent woman lieutenant, Violette Retancourt—a positivist irritated by Adamsberg’s vagueness—that there is indeed a connection:
“We’re not looking for a vampire, Retancourt,” said Adamsberg firmly, “we’re not going out into the streets to search for some creature who got a stake through his heart in the early eighteenth century. Surely that’s clear enough for you, lieutenant.”
“No, not really.”
Vargas highlights our variation in mental processes—how we each investigate, , how we think—in Have Mercy on Us All (tr. 2003), whichdraws heavily on Vargas’s own research into the Black Death and bubonic plague (published as Les Chemins de la peste or “Routes of the Plague”, 2003). Someone in Paris is drawing a symbol like a backwards number four on apartment doors in highrise apartments, leaving inside each apartment ivory envelopes which contain fleas, with messages inside that draw on medieval Latin texts about the plague’s arrival, first in Paris, later in Marseilles. And, yes, the fleas are nosopsyllus fasciatus, connected with the plague. These details draw us from Paris highrise apartments to the itching swollen bites in Danglard’s armpits and the image of the anglophile commandant leaping out of his I-love-the-English tweeds into déclassé black jeans and a baggy t-shirt—confounding the other members of his squad.
Meanwhile, dead bodies appear in the streets. Modern Parisians become terrified when news outlets report that the last arrival of the plague in Paris, in 1920, was hushed up by the authorities. Adamsberg vainly points out that the dead bodies being found were each strangled and the black splotches on their bodies are merely powdered charcoal. With the investigation stymied, he senses that he himself missed a step, missed a clue. He decides to spend the afternoon in a Paris square waiting for the local Breton newscaster—a former sailor named Joss whose gig is to read aloud to the waiting audience the “news” envelopes submitted by various listeners:
Adamsberg enjoyed listening to the harmless small ads in pale sunlight. An entire afternoon spent doing bugger all except letting body and mind wind down had helped him recover…He had reached the level of animation of a sponge bobbing about on a stormy sea. It was a state he sometimes sought specifically.
And at the close of the newscast, as Joss was announcing the wreck of the day, he jumped, as if a pebble had just hit the sponge hard. The bump almost hurt physically, leaving Adamsberg nonplussed and alert. He could not tell where it had come from. It was necessarily a picture that had hit him while he’d been drowsing with his shoulder leaning on the trunk of the plane—a fleeting frame, a split-second flash of a visual detail of some kind.
Adamsberg straightened up and scanned the whole scene in search of the lost image, trying to recover the sense of shock.
Haven’t we each sometimes waked up with the sense we missed something, something we heard, something we saw? And tried to retrieve it? No spoilers here as to what Adamsberg will recall.
Of course we need logic and intuition, visual and auditory memory, history and scientific analysis. Vargas’s hypercreative plots, often rooted in French myth and history, require not only Danglard’s enormous historical knowledge and ratiocination, but Adamsberg’s “swimming into deep water.” What initially looks like ordinary murder in Paris, or Normandy, becomes, at Vargas’s hands, a mythic quest, a trip down the rabbit hole where, finally, an unexpected mystery is solved. We think we’re just cloud-shoveling, but suddenly all the threads come together and we see the whole picture—far more complex than we’d dreamed—at last.
The Adamsberg books are a treat, but anyone who has ever been a grad student will also relish Vargas’s unlikely trio of graduate students and their roles in solving murders: The Three Evangelists (tr. 2006), Dog Will Have His Day (tr. 2014), and The Accordionists (tr. 2017). A new Adamsberg will arrive in August. More cloud-shoveling!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.
At the June Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas meeting, Detective Dave Fugitt presented an overview of the Austin Police Department Homicide Unit. Local mystery author and Travis County Assistant District Attorney Mark Pryor introduced Det. Fugitt as the best homicide investigator in the Austin Police Department. In his capacity as ADA, Mr. Pryor and Det. Fugitt have worked together on murder cases in Travis County.
Fugitt is a member of the Homicide Investigators of Texas and the International Homicide Investigators Association. The International Homicide Investigators Association holds annual symposiums for detectives from around the world. During these meetings, detectives share ideas for solving cold cases and keep up to date on new techniques and technology in forensics and crime solving. The association also holds regional training events around the United States.
As an APD homicide investigator Fugitt has been the lead investigator on 48 homicides in his career and has closed 45 of them. He would still like to solve those other three cases, one of which is the first case he was ever assigned as a lead detective. Fugitt also has assisted in over 500 homicide investigations as a member of the homicide unit. Of these cases, the detective said that cases involving victims engaged in risky or illegal behaviors tended to be difficult to solve and his first case that remains unsolved falls into that category.
According to Fugitt, each detective in the homicide unit is assigned 3 to 5 homicides each year as the lead investigator. While working those cases, each officer also investigates suicides, accidents, and deaths from unknown causes and assists with murder cases assigned to others in the unit. Cases are assigned using a unique rotation system. This detective rotation system is different from systems used by homicide units in other cities and has been very successful for the Austin Police Department. Other cities have sent representatives to Austin to review this rotation system to see if it would work for them.
The detective provided a wealth of information about homicide investigations for audience members, including describing the interrogation rooms, layout of the homicide unit, and the equipment available to detectives.
Fugitt explained that police officers undergo training and classes to keep up to date with new investigative practices. He has had approximately 5,722 hours of training from the police department. One recent class was “Crime Scene Shooting Reconstruction.” Fugitt also reads Forensics Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine to learn new methods of evidence analysis and collection. He recommends books for reference material, including Practical Homicide Investigation and The Death Investigators Handbook.
Fugitt has been involved in high-profile investigations, several of which have been documented in books and movies. He participated in the investigation into the death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and investigated the murder of Jennifer Cave. During the meeting, Fugitt answered a variety of questions for local authors regarding evidence collection and investigation practices. He admitted that he tries to see the victim’s body as evidence to be reviewed, but that it is harder to separate emotion from cases involving the murder of children. He stated that family support is critical for members of his unit because of how much time they spend working on new cases as the lead investigator.
The detective shared anecdotes from his own personal experience working in the homicide unit. For example, Det. Fugitt told a story about a case he assisted on when he was first assigned to the homicide unit. The lead detective asked Fugitt to tell him how a small amount of blood landed on a nearby mirror. Fugitt looked at the blood, which appeared to be high velocity spatter, but could not see how the blood could possibly have landed where it did, given the position of the body in the case. He was puzzled, but the lead detective told him to stare at it for a moment and the answer would come to him. After a moment feeling stupid, Det. Fugitt observed a fly landing on the mirror and leaving blood behind. He realized that the apparent spatter was really blood droplets transferred from the fly when it landed on the mirror.
Detective Fugitt was a wonderful speaker and willingly answered the questions put to him by authors in the audience. Several members of this blog, Ink-Stained Wretches, attended the meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas holds monthly meetings on a variety of topics, including inviting guest speakers of interest to mystery authors and readers. Check them out at Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime
Full disclosure: N. M. Cedeño, the author of this blog, is also the current President of the Sisters in Crime-Heart of Texas Chapter. She writes traditional, sci-fi, and paranormal mysteries. Her new paranormal mystery, Degrees of Deceit will be published later this year. Her work can be found at amazon.com/author/nmcedeno