4 de gener de 2015

"Goooaaal!" in the unusual field of football crime

[The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 january 2015]

Sue Turnbull


Philip Kerr

Crime Fiction
January Window
PHILIP KERR
Head of Zeus, $29.99


January Window belongs to a small subset of crime fiction set in the world of football. Not being a sports fan, let me try and be more precise. We're not talking Aussie Rules, but soccer. (Note in passing, the sub-genre of Aussie Rules crime fiction may be even smaller.)

Author Philip Kerr, creator of the acclaimed Berlin Noir trilogy, is "a life-long supporter" of the Arsenal football club in London, and it shows. There's a flicker of nostalgia detectable for the good old days before "foreigners and television turned the whole thing into a bloody sideshow", as one disgruntled character eloquently puts it. 

Lest this disgruntlement be thought to signal a more general xenophobia, Kerr's central character, team coach Scott Manson, speaks Spanish, Italian, German and Scottish. This polyglottism is an effect not only of his own career as a footballer, and a BA in Modern Languages, but also his heritage. Manson's white father met his black high-jumping German athlete mother while playing for Scotland in the World Cup in West Germany in 1974. Manson's multilingualism and mixed-race origins prove useful when handling his highly strung, overpaid but not very bright stable of expensive players from all over the world.
The fictional London City's line-up also includes a recently appointed  Portuguese manager, Joao Zarco, with a Machiavellian streak and the capacity to create a Phil Spectorish "wall of sound" when giving his players their expletive-laden off-field "bollocking". The club is owned by a billionaire Ukranian businessman, Sokolnikov, who may or may not be legit but is suing the BBC anyway over a profile exploring his links to organised crime. Manson, meanwhile, just wants his team to win.
Manson is an engaging narrator, although his sexual politics are far from correct. He has a glamorous girlfriend who services him obligingly (the relationship is doomed), and fancies every good-looking woman who comes his way, including two female detective inspectors. However, when you are about to dismiss him as hopelessly unreconstructed, Manson reveals just enough about his dark past and himself to make you reconsider. While he may be a tad crude, Manson is also intelligent and complex, with a previous wrongful conviction for rape that has left him deeply suspicious of the police.

Manson's likeability is just as well given that he is our guide through this tale of murder and football. It is he who informs us what the eponymous January Window might be: a period of four weeks in the middle of a season when the International Football Federation allows clubs to register new players and furious trading ensues. He also explains how to manage a "paarlauf training session", which is not unlike a team version of a fartlek session, if that helps. As you might expect, this involves a lot of running about.

There are also a suicide and a murder. When manager Zarco is found dead at the team's Crown of Thorns stadium in East London, owner Sokolnikov asks Manson to conduct his own discreet investigation, given there are so many potential suspects and connections that it might be in the best interests of the club not to reveal. With his hostility towards the police and his loyalty to the club, Manson is happy to oblige and proves a worthy sleuth.

Given my complete lack of interest in football of any shape, it was surprising to discover that what I really loved about the January Window was not so much the crime story as all that locker-room insight into the politics of the game. There is a sequel in the works and I'm already looking forward to the next match. Paarlauf anyone?


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