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|The title characters appear much too briefly in Stephen E. Mitchell's "golf mystery," <em>The Morris Men</em>. (n/a)|
Billed as a "golf-themed mystery for golfers and non-golfers alike," Stephen E. Mitchell's first novel, The Morris Men, will likely end up disappointing both.
The Morris Men is a story of two eccentric, well-to-do Englishmen whose rivalry on and off the golf course takes a decidedly ludicrous turn when they make a winner-take-all bet in 1921. The bet is to be decided at Royal Stratford Golf Club, where Sir Giles Pinkney and Sir Randolph Erskine battle annually for dominance, with the last man standing, literally, to be the winner and gain the other's considerable estate as a prize, leaving the loser with nothing.
The prize and ultimate proof of victory in this contest is a vintage Tom Morris putter, leading the rivals to call themselves "The Morris Men" in the legal documentation of the wager. Alas, both succumb to age before the winner can claim his prize, therefore extending the bet into perpetuity, or at least until one of their descendants is able to figure things out.
Fast-forward to the present day: The families of Pinkney and Erskine discover the bet, allowing the rivalry to begin anew under the watchful eye Maurice Bainbridge of the law firm of Bainbridge & Bainbridge, which originally handled the legalese of the "Morris Men Agreement," as the bet is called.
Thus begins a contest to find the Tom Morris putter for the new rivals, with one of the families aiming to win the club to take the other's estate and the other hoping to triumph simply to put the whole thing to rest. The battle is thus set up as good-family-versus-evil family, with trickery and deceit part of the game plan.
A main problem with The Morris Men is its distinct lack of the actual Morris Men. They are easily the most interesting characters in the book, rivals in several disputed business deals that obviously caused them both to go batty and bet everything they had in hopes of causing the other's complete humiliation.
Unfortunately, the original Pinkney and Erskine are given very little play; most of the action rests with their descendants, and it's terribly hard to fathom how a wager between two men decades before could be placed on their shoulders (Maurice Bainbridge's modern-day shrug and "it looks legal to me" speech notwithstanding). Regardless of the legal standing of the original bet, it is difficult to imagine a contemporary court upholding the deal, though the reader is led to believe it would.
Even that leap of faith would be easier to make if the storytelling was stronger. A first-time novelist, Mitchell makes several basic writing errors, the main one being his quick and frequent resort to describing the characters rather than allowing the readers to discover them through his writing. To wit:
"Robert Erskine, not the most self-assured individual ..."
"Elizabeth Erskine, on the other hand, was more worldly than her husband ..."
"Yet Charles Pinkney was not tolerant man and both sitting and waiting were not in his nature." (This is also an example of one of the several grammatical errors in the book.)
These quick summations of the characters' personalities tend to be confusing, and at times contradictory. Charles Pinkney is described more than once as an aggressive and successful businessman, but his actions wholly defy those descriptions, and he is routinely thumped in his every endeavor.
As the modern-day rivals have no interest whatsoever in golf, the game itself receives little attention, which is a shame, as Mitchell shows a flair for describing golf action, particularly in Sir Randolph Erskine's on-course breakdown in the book's opening pages.
While the end of the book bogs down in a lengthy and somewhat tedious battle at an auction house, Mitchell does show some talent for creating interesting plot twists that provide The Morris Men with its best sections.
In the end, however, the novel is about overlooked opportunities, by its author as much as by its characters. The Morris Men is advertised as a "Bainbridge Diaries" novel, implying that we'll be seeing more about Maurice Bainbridge and cases his forefathers handled over the years. But like the characters he has created, Mitchell will need to up his game to make this series a winning venture.
By Stephen E. Mitchell
Antony Rowe Publishing Services
William K. Wolfrum keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. You can follow him on Twitter @Wolfrum.
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