Fresh Meat: Hangman’s Game by Bill Syken

Hangman's Game by Bill Syken is the debut mystery in the Nick Gallow series about a professional fooball player who gets caught up in a murder investigation after witnessing a teammate's gruesome death (available August 18, 2015).

Until recently, football had always been a six-month sport, using Labor Day and Groundhog Day as approximate bookends, but now, the sport is a self-sustaining, year-long event. Between the Combine, Free Agency, Draft Weekend, Minicamp, Training Camp, and (unfortunately) Deflategate, a football story almost always begins Sportscenter. Despite the winds of negativity that seem to always be swirling right outside the NFL’s door, the sport continues to add floor after floor to its ever-growing skyscraper of sporting domination.

Bill Syken is familiar with this skyscraper, and in fact, he’s probably ridden the elevator a few times. Syken, a staff writer and editor at Sports Illustrated for eight years, puts his premier knowledge of the sport to good use in Hangman’s Game, his debut novel.

Hangman’s Game centers on Nick Gallow, a punter for the fictional Philadelphia Sentinels, whose recent struggles have yielded them Samuel Sault, the 2nd overall pick from this past year’s draft. Samuel is already being hailed as the man who will rescue the Sentinel’s from another year of embarrassment. (I must say, as a New York Giants fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Syken’s fictional Philadelphia team is a dysfunctional mess.)

The story opens with Nick welcoming Samuel to Philadelphia to the tune of a nice steak dinner. The pair is joined by Cecil Wilson, a sports agent to whom they are both clients. Nick takes Samuel to a restaurant that many of the players on the team frequent, and expectedly, a few of them are already there enjoying a meal. One of these players is Jai Carson, an aging and boisterous linebacker who until only recently, was considered the star player on the Sentinels. But that all changed the second Samuel was drafted, and Jai isn’t a fan of sharing the spotlight. When Jai notices Samuel at the restaurant, he invites the rookie to join him for dinner, but Samuel wants nothing to do with Jai’s abrasive personality, and declines. As you could probably guess, Jai doesn’t take this well:

“I see a table over there,” Samuel mutters and begins walking into the dining area—not toward the players’ section but to an empty table on the far side of the regular dining room. The hostess grabs three menus and runs out in front of Samuel, attempting to gain control of the expedition.

Up to this point, I have been feeling sorry for shy, sheltered Samuel, but his refusal is unmistakably rude.

“Well, fuck me,” Jai says, mystified. Then, angrier: “Fuck me!” For Jai, the phrase is like “Aloha” or “Shalom,” in that it carries many different meanings, depending on the situation and inflection.

I wish I could tell you that I have never seen anything like this, a simple disagreement that quickly escalates into high-grade hostility, but football is populated by thin-skinned competitors who see every conflict as an urgent test of their manhood. That’s great when it’s fourth-and-goal on the one; less so when you want a peaceable dinner.

Dinner eventually concludes, but before returning home, Nick, Samuel, and Cecil decide to swing by the Sentinels’ stadium to show the rookie his new battleground. Nick, who rolls his eyes at the idea but obliges, lingers behind Cecil and Samuel when they park, tending to a flurry of booty-call-seeking texts. Ironically, this act might have very well saved his life, because as he’s ponders which innuendo to use in his next text, a pair of gunshots ring out:

I look up and see Cecil stumbling toward me. “Drop, drop!” he shouts to me as he falls against the fence. I lower myself to the ground as a burning smell penetrates my nostrils. I see a car’s red taillights already fifty yards gone and speeding away. The car has a bumper sticker with a quarter moon. The moon seemed to be grinning.

My hearing is muffled by the blasts but I can make out a guttural groan from Cecil, who is on the ground, propped up against the chain-link fence. He is holding his wrist and his yellow shirt is darkening across the bottom. Samuel lays motionless on his back with his head turned to the side and a puddle expanding rapidly around his body. A gush of blood seeps down the sidewalk, over a curb and into the street. The flow is torrential; it is like a main has broken. Samuel’s broad mouth is open, as are his eyes, as if he can’t believe it either.

All of this happens in the first 20 pages or so, and what follows is a nice mix of puzzle solving and football practice. Syken certainly didn’t do anything to reinvent the murder mystery, and that was never his goal. Instead, he takes the familiarity of a sudden, thinly-clued murder and sets it in the middle of minicamp. I was initially skeptical as to why a punter would involve himself in a murder case, but Syken justifies these actions by making the local police blindly buy into the belief that Jai is the killer. The altercation at the dinner before the murder is motive enough for the cops, but Nick is determined to prove them wrong. Jai might be a hothead, but he’d look to settle his score on the field, not throw away his life.

Hangman’s Game is an entertaining read that offers a unique setting for a mystery, and I'll be looking forward to strapping on the pads with Nick Gallow again soon. Though a few of the characters could have used more flushing out (specifically Coach Tanner), I have more than enough faith in Bill Syken’s skill that he’ll come back even shaper for book two. After all, it takes a hell of  a lot of work to reach the Super Bowl, and we’re only just starting minicamp.

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Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element. He’s a New York Giants fan, a Petyr Baelish supporter, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.

Read all of Joe Brosnan’s posts for Criminal Element.

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