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.
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?
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
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
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.