Settling the Score by Peter Gibbs, a paperback original published by Methuen, is a debut novel, although from the pen of an experienced screenwriter. There are special reasons why, for me, it was a wonderfully satisfying read, and although I had a perhaps unique interest in the book, I can recommend it very strongly. There is a 'whodunit' element in the plot, and one or two minor crimes are committed, but it's not a murder mystery, or indeed anything like any book I've ever reviewed on this blog. But let me first explain why I was so glad to have the chance to read it.
When I was growing up, I was not only a keen cricket fan, but one of the few who supported Derbyshire, a team widely regarded as perennial strugglers. I dreamed of opening the batting for them, but the brutal truth was that I was never a good enough cricketer to have any chance of that. But their opening batsman came from Cheshire, as I did, and had studied at Oxford University, which impressed me greatly. From occasional articles that he contributed to club brochures, I deduced that he enjoyed writing comedy, as I did at the time. He seemed to me to have a perfect life. And then, despite the fact that he was a very good player, he gave it all up at the young age of 28. I was baffled, since I hadn't yet learned that no life is perfect. His name was Peter Gibbs.
Some years later, he began writing for TV. One series, about a lawyer called Kinsey, was especially good. He also became the lead scriptwriter for Heartbeat, and so got to know Peter Walker, who first introduced me to the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, and on whose books Heartbeat was based. I would guess that he's always harboured an ambition to publish a novel and now, in his 60s, he's achieved it. And his background is... a Derbyshire cricket match in the late 60s, a period when I could claim to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the players' records. But, of course, no knowledge of what went on behind the scenes.
This book lifts the lid in quite a fascinating way on the lives of youngish men, living and working together seven days a week for a large part of the year. It's received numerous positive reviews already, and I suspect that people will increasingly say that he's a much better writer than he was a cricketer; but that would be a bit unfair, since P.J.K. Gibbs, as one journalist who wasn't a fan always called him, was in fact a very good batsman to watch.
The story involves the conflict between two brothers, team rivalries spiced by illicit affairs, and a great many wittily described scenes. I found it laugh-out-loud funny, but there are also moments of poignancy, not least in one sub-plot that echoes a real life scandal in which a Derbyshire cricketer of the sixties was victimised by the establishment. There is a lot about cricket in Settling the Score, but I hope that even those who have no interest in the game will be tempted to give this book a try. It's the best novel about cricket I've ever read, even better than Pro, by Bruce Hamilton (brother of Patrick, whose crime novels I've mentioned before on this blog.) I'd go further, and say that, much as I admire the Dick Francis books, now carried on by Felix Francis, Peter Gibbs' debut is the most enjoyable sport-based novel I've ever read.