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Book review: Huntington native takes another swing at baseball mystery

By James E. Casto

"A Player to be Maimed Later." By John Billheimer. Five Star Publishing. 311 pages. $25.95.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Huntington-born writer John Billheimer, who hit one out of the park last year with a baseball-themed mystery, is back at bat again with a follow-up novel.

A 1956 graduate of Huntington's St. Joseph Central Catholic High School, Billheimer went on to study engineering, earning a master's degree at MIT and a doctorate at Stanford University. Today, he lives in Portola Valley, Calif., where for 30 years he was vice president of a consulting firm specializing in transportation planning. But in 1998 he started down a new road as a mystery writer.

A business trip back to West Virginia to work on a railroad project set him to thinking about trying his hand at a novel set in his native state. The result was "The Contrary Blues," published in 1998, the first of what would become a series of mysteries featuring Owen Allison, a California engineering consultant who finds himself drawn back to his native West Virginia. (The resemblance between Allison and Billheimer seems less than coincidental.) Four more Owen Allison novels followed.

Billheimer is a huge baseball fan and in 2007 published a nonfiction book on baseball scapegoats, "Baseball and the Blame Game." Given his passion for the game, it seems inevitable that sooner or later he would write a baseball mystery and that's what he came up with last year in "Field of Schemes."

The novel introduced a new character, Lloyd Keaton, a newspaper sportswriter who lost his money, his wife and his big-city sportswriting job to a gambling habit. It's set in the fictitious small town of Menckenburg, Ohio, with side trips to the gambling establishments of East Wheeling, W.Va.

When a hotshot outfielder on Menckenburg's minor league team asks his trainer, Dale Loren, for steroids, Loren supplies the player a harmless mixture of cold cream and lemon juice, telling him it's a brand-new steroid that can't be detected by baseball's urine-testing regimen. Believing he has an illegal edge, the player goes on a hitting spree and is called up to the majors where, cut off from his supply of "steroids," he falls into a deep slump. Then he tests positive for drugs and fingers Loren as his supplier. Loren is fired and, not long after, the outfielder is found dead.

The police say the outfielder was the victim of a fatal drug overdose. But sportswriter Keaton is unconvinced and sets out to clear Loren's name. In the process, he's threatened by mobsters, shot at and learns that his own teenage son is hooked on steroids. But, just like Owen Allison in Billheimer's earlier series of mysteries, Keaton soon manages to make things right.

Now, in "A Player to be Maimed Later," Lloyd Keaton is back. This time he gets a second chance at the big time. Retired major league pitcher Blaze Stender asks his old friend Lloyd to write his biography and offers him a hefty chunk of the advance payment he's received for the book. Lloyd happily accepts the assignment (and the money), but he's barely started his research when Stender's pleasure boat is destroyed in a spectacular crash on Lake Erie. The baseball superstar is missing and presumed dead.

His death triggers an outpouring of fan praise, not just for his baseball career but also for his extensive charity work. Stender's widow asks Lloyd to continue work on the book and so he keeps digging -- and soon finds the baseball great was hiding some mighty dark secrets. When some of those secrets come to light, Stender's widow tells Lloyd to stop work. She says she doesn't want her dead husband's memory soiled. But Keaton can't help following a story -- even when his own life is threatened.

John Billheimer knows his baseball -- and knows how to tell the kind of story that keeps readers turning pages, eager to see what happens next. Here's hoping that his Lloyd Keaton continues his sportwriting career -- and keeps finding new mysteries to solve.

Billheimer plans a brief return to West Virginia to visit with family and friends and promote his new book. He's scheduled to sign books at the Cabell County Public Library in downtown Huntington at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26, and on Sept. 27 at Tamarack in Beckley from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Taylor Books in Charleston from 6 to 8 p.m.

Retired Huntington newspaper editor James E. Casto occasionally reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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