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Walking a golf course with Roberta Isleib can be scary, especially if you're strolling her home course, Madison ( Conn.) Country Club on Long Island Sound. Isleib has planted three bodies--dead bodies--at Madison. There's one beneath the sand in the bunker off the 10th fairway, another in the marsh grass behind the 9th tee and a third in a bunker on 17. In fact, Isleib has done so much corpse-littering at Madison and other golf locales that she gives new meaning to the phrase knocking it stiff. � But Isleib, a licensed clinical psychologist, has a grip on her homicidal tendencies. She is the creator of an engaging, soft-boiled series of golf-themed mystery novels, making her the rare female in a mostly male discipline.
Isleib's most recent novel, Final Fore, is typical. Final Fore is the fifth and, for now, final adventure of LPGA tour pro Cassie Burdette. In her late 20s Cassie has qualified for the U.S. Women's Open, and Titleist is considering a sponsorship deal for her. But Cassie is a little too acerbic and inquisitive for her own good, and trouble finds her like a sliced tee shot finds the woods. Not only does she have problems with her boyfriend, her parents and her caddie, but she is also the recipient of threatening e-mails. Then, on the eve of the Open, a competitor is poisoned and found dead. Cassie's not a suspect, but with all this going on, how's she supposed to focus on golf?
Isleib, 53, introduced Cassie in Six Strokes Under--an Agatha Award nominee for best first mystery novel--in 2002, a dozen years after she fell for a man who was in love with golf. The game connected with Isleib's psychological sweet spot. "There's something about golf that cuts loose what people don't usually show about themselves," she says. Isleib picked up the game's scent, detouring from the life path she had created. How Isleib evolved from a tennis-playing therapist at Yale to a certifiable golf nut playing mind games in print is, if not a complete mystery, a heck of plot twist.
Golf and murder have a long literary history. Sherlock Holmes knew the game. Agatha Christie mucked around in the sport in two novels. Rex Stout raised the curtain on Nero Wolfe by lowering the boom on a victim on the golf course. Ian Fleming, E.C. Bentley, Elizabeth Daly, James Ellroy, Harlan Coben and Pete Dexter are among the mainstays of mayhem who've woven golf into their plots, while James Y. Bartlett, Conor Daly, Malcolm Hammer, John Logue, Keith Miles and the husband-and-wife team of Aaron and Charlotte Elkins have all found enough intrigue in the game for continuing series and characters. "Golf's pace lends itself to narrative," says Don Wade, whose scorecard of golf books includes the mystery Take Dead Aim. "There's time for stuff to happen."
Golf is a plausible stage. The rich and powerful play the game, as do regular Joes. So do writers, who supposedly write what they know. Golfers as a demographic are also better educated than the public at large, and therefore they are readers--hence, a built-in audience. But even the most golf-addled readers need more than bogeys and birdies to propel them from page to page. The plot must expand beyond the fairway. "No one's interested in shot-by-shot details except maybe your partner in the member-guest," Isleib says. True, readers follow Cassie through Q school (Six Strokes, 2002) to the ShopRite LPGA Classic (A Buried Lie, 2003) to servitude as an assistant club pro when she loses her tour card (Putt to Death, 2004) to Pinehurst for a Silly Season event (Fairway to Heaven, 2005) and finally to the U.S. Women's Open. Along the way Isleib touches on golf-related issues such as nonconforming clubs, gender equity, women in men's events and slow play. But her mysteries also delve into more general topics such as community development, pharmaceutical research, the environment and family dynamics.
Chapter 1 of Isleib's golf-mystery writing began the day she met John Brady at a tennis event for singles--both were divorced--in 1990 and he asked her for a date. They married two years later. Isleib had grown up in northern New Jersey and was in the third class of female undergraduates at Princeton, where she earned a degree in French literature in '75, before getting a masters in vocational rehabilitation from Tennessee in '78 and a doctorate in clinical psychology at Florida in '85. She then served a two-year internship at Yale. Isleib stayed at the university as a therapist and eventually opened a private practice outside New Haven specializing in, she says, "the good old-fashioned psychodynamics that examine past history to shed light on current problems."
Brady is a serious golfer. He grew up playing the game, carried a single-digit handicap and had joined Madison Country Club not long before meeting Isleib. A few months after their first date he took her to a driving range and handed her a club. "She was an instant fanatic," he says.
"It was such a challenge," Isleib says. "I took it seriously from the start."
The first time she teed it up on a real course, Isleib needed 10 strokes to advance the ball 150 yards, but then jarred her 11th shot from 60 yards out. She immersed herself in the game, reading and taking lessons. Before long she had an 18 handicap and was entering state women's tournaments. "I was always the last person off the tee," Isleib says, "because I was the worst player with the gall to enter."
Given how her understanding of the mind outdistanced her tee shots, Isleib soon concluded that she had something useful to offer other women golfers. "Psychologically, golf is such an interesting mystery," she says. So she took a stab at freelancing psychological how-to articles, and by the late '90s her work was popping up in magazines such as Golf for Women. She attended workshops and seminars, and joined a writers' group. Everything she wrote was edited by Brady, a business-to-business publisher. Still, Isleib was frustrated. "It was a bear to get things into print," she says. Then a friend from grad school, with whom Isleib had been exchanging mystery novels for years, suggested that she write one. Cassie emerged a few weeks later.