Bowled By A BulletArchie Mac and Martin Chandler |
Author: Growden, Greg
Publisher: The Cricket Publishing Company
Rating: 4.5 stars
The front cover of Bowled by a Bullet is a strange looking thing. It looks for all the world as if the book must be one of those rather tacky mass market crime stories of the middle part of the twentieth century. It is a slightly depressing start although the opening chapter is a little more encouraging, leading to hopes that the book might be more Agatha Christie than Mickey Spillane.
Those who have read the publisher’s note or the foreword will know at this stage that Greg Growden is just toying with them, and that his book is actually a sporting biography rather than a starspiece of detective fiction, but it is a clever ruse. The rest of the book is more conventional in approach, but does still have a tendency to read like a novel in places. That is in part due to its subject matter, but must also be a deliberate decision on Growden’s part to lean towards that genre.
Australia gives the impression it is one of the most egalitarian nations on the planet, so the setting for Claude Tozer’s story, the upper echelons of Sydney society in the early years of the last century, was something of an eye-opener for this English reviewer. It seems that Victorian and Edwardian England did not have a monopoly on big houses, servants and exclusive private educations.
Tozer was a doctor, then as now a profession involving a lengthy route to qualification, so although he was a very fine batsman his other commitments, coupled with the intervention of the Great War, meant he only ever played seven First Class matches, between 1911 and 1920. That limited exposure still gave Tozer the opportunity to do enough to be talked of as a future Test player. He averaged an impressive 46.72, and it also means that for once I will not bemoan the lack of a statistical appendix to the book (although it might still have been helpful to have one dealing with his exploits in minor cricket).
Soon after the outbreak of war Tozer volunteered and he spent time at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. He was a medic rather than a fighter, but he was still a brave man who himself sustained severe wounds that required a lengthy convalescence before returning to the makeshift hospitals at the front. On more than one occasion news got back to Australia to the effect that he had been killed.
As things turned out a fit and healthy Tozer returned to cricket and private practice in 1919, although one will never know what mental scars the experience of four years at war would have left. Added to that Tozer saw his fiancée pass away shortly before their wedding – the cause was pneumonia. Having postponed the ceremony once on leaving for Gallipoli, to lose the love of his life so quickly after his ultimately safe return must surely have been something else that interfered substantially with Tozer’s thought processes.
Although he had little by way of psychiatric training Tozer agreed, at the request of her prosperous husband, to treat Mrs Dorothy Mort, a lady with a past possibly even more traumatic than Tozer’s own, for mental health problems. Tozer soon disregarded his Hippocratic oath, and his relationship with his patient became a romantic one. After a few months he realised the folly of his actions and sought to end the liaison. At what proved to be his final meeting with Mrs Mort she shot him dead at her home on 21 December 1920.
The story was huge news at the time, and the trial of Mrs Mort, found eventually to be not guilty by way of insanity was heavily reported. It is perhaps surprising the events leading up to the tragic confrontation have laid dormant for as long as they have. Mrs Mort was detained for nine years after her trial, but then released, and she lived on until 1966.
There is no index to Bowled by a Bullet, and perhaps one is not really necessary, but I would have liked to have seen a bibliography somewhere in the book. As it is the prose finishes at the end of page 180 and that is that. In particular I am none the wiser as to whether or not it is a pure coincidence that sees this book published just a few months after the release of Mrs Mort’s Madness by Suzanne Falkiner. The lawyer in me wants to read that one as well, but having had my appetite whetted I would probably buy Ms Falkiner’s book as well anyway. This really is a remarkable story, and Growden has done an excellent job of telling it from Tozer’s perspective.
When author, Greg Growden released a quality biography of ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith – A Wayward Genius, in 1991, if was naturally assumed, with its success, that Growden would become a regular contributor to cricket literature. Well it took 17 years before Growden’s next effort, and another quality read in a biography on Jack Fingleton.
So perhaps we should be impressed that Bowled by a Bullet has only taken Growden seven years. Still a fair wait but well worth it as this is an early contender for book of the year.
A book of the year needs a quality writer, impeccable research and perhaps most of all a fine story. The first two were a given, with Growden’s involvement and the Claude Tozer story has it all. A standout student and sportsman who was certain to succeed at anything he set his mind to.
Tozer decided he would become a doctor and a Test cricketer. He achieved the first part of his destiny and it seemed he would achieve the second. Even a near death experience in the Great War could not stop him.
Tozer was a principled man, who did what was expected of him, except on one occasion when he fell for a patient. The part of the narrative when Tozer confronts his unhinged lover is page turning stuff, which is rare in a cricket book and in fact most nonfiction publications and helps elevate this book well above the average. For those of you who don’t know the Tozer story, we shall leave it there.
After this magnificent effort, we can only hope Growden keeps true to his form and the turnaround for his next book is even shorter – three years seems reasonable.
It should be noted that the only reason this book does not receive five stars is the author’s choice to speculate on the thought pattern of Tozer. Even if Growden made some reasonable educated assumptions on the thinking and motivation of his subject, in the end it just didn’t always ring true. This, it must be acknowledged in a very minor criticism.