One of the character roles that we sometimes see in crime fiction is the person who is being used as a pawn in a larger game. Anyone who reads spy and espionage fiction can tell you that that sub-genre is full of such characters. After all, in the ongoing larger chess match between, say, two countries, the spies for both sides are pawns. I’m not going to focus on spy and espionage fiction, though – too easy. There’s plenty of other crime fiction, too, that includes such characters.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, we are introduced to Violet Hunter, who is trying to decide whether to take a position as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. On the one hand, the salary Rucastle offers is generous. On the other, some of Rucastle’s requests – he calls them ‘whims’ – seem a little strange. For instance, he asks her to wear a certain dress; later, he asks her to cut her hair. At that point, Violet gets concerned, and so does Sherlock Holmes, when she pays him a visit. But Rucastle increases his salary offer so much that she really doesn’t feel she has a choice. Holmes reassures her that if she ever has need of him, all she needs to do is contact him. Not much later, that’s exactly what she does. Holmes and Watson travel to Copper Beeches, the Rucastle home, as quickly as they can, to try to avert a tragedy. It turns out that without her knowledge, Violet’s being used as a pawn in someone’s dangerous game.
As Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) begins, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are attending a theatre performance starring Carlotta Adams, an American actress who’s become something of a sensation. Also attending that performance is another actress, Jane Wilkinson. Later, Poirot and Hastings see her again at supper, where she makes an unusual request. She wants Poirot to visit her husband, Lord Edgware, and ask him to agree to a divorce so that she can remarry. Initially, Poirot demurs, but is finally persuaded. Oddly enough, when Poirot and Hastings visit Edgware, he claims that he has no objection to the divorce, and the two leave, more than a little confused. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His widow is, of course, the prime suspect. But for one thing, she had no motive, since he had withdrawn his objection to a divorce. For another, she says she was attending a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and there are twelve other people who will swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp, who’s investigating this case, has to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, Carlotta Adams is found dead, apparently of a drug overdose. Poirot works with Japp to find out how the two deaths are connected. It turns out that Carlotta was being used as a pawn.
In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we meet detective story novelist Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of this story, Cairnes’ son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes has been inconsolable since then, and has determined to find and kill the man responsible. He does a little sleuthing and learns that the driver was most likely a man named George Rattery. Once he’s fairly certain of his man, Cairnes has to find a way to get close to him, so as to plot his death. For that, he settles on Cairnes’ sister-in-law, an actress named Lena Lawson, who was actually in the car at the time of Martie’s death. She’s no fool, but in this case, she becomes Cairnes’ pawn. The two begin a romance, and Cairnes now has his ‘in’ to the Rattery household. Cairnes takes Rattery on a sailing trip which is supposed to end in Rattery’s death, but doesn’t. When Rattery is later found dead of what turns out to be poison, Cairnes is the natural suspect. But, as he tells gentleman detective Nigel Strangeways, although he originally did plan to kill Rattery, he didn’t poison the man. Now he wants Strangways to find out the truth and clear his name. And as it turns out, more than one person wanted Rattery dead.
Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins becomes a pawn in a larger game in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Rawlins gets a letter from US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in taxes – money he doesn’t have – and that he’ll go to jail if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins is resigning himself to spending some time in jail when FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers him a way out. If Rawlins will help bring down a suspected communist infiltrator, Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax problems go away. This novel takes place in the early 1950’s, when there was real fear about communism in the US. Rawlins agrees (what choice does he have?) and learns a little more about his quarry. The man’s name is Chaim Wenzler. He’s a former Polish Resistance fighter who now volunteers at the First African Baptist Church, and that’s where it’s agreed that Rawlins will get close to him. Things don’t turn out the way they’re planned, though. First, as Rawlins gets to know Wenzler, he finds that he likes the man and has no real interest in his destruction. Second, Rawlins finds himself a suspect when two members of the church are murdered. In the end, Rawlins finds out who’s behind it all, and solves his problem in a most un-pawnlike way.
And then there’s Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom. British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is given a new and difficult assignment. He’s told to travel to Thailand to retrieve a particular lead-covered box. The box is believed to be in the Andaman Sea, where it’s been resting since the ship it was on went down. For Swann, this is going to be a particularly tricky task. In order to get the personnel, supplies, and protection he’ll need for the job, he will have to get the support of powerful crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. He has a history with Tuk-Tuk, though. On an earlier assignment, Swann ended up saving Tuk-Tuk’s life, but having to kill his son. So getting the man’s support will be difficult. Still, Swann takes the risk of contacting Tuk-Tuk, and prepares to get the box. After some real danger, and several deaths, Swann ends up retrieving the box. And that’s when the real trouble begins. In the end, he learns that he’s been used as a pawn for someone’s larger purpose.
In real life, people do use others as pawns at times. And that plot point can add suspense and tension to a story, especially when the person being manipulated finds out about the exploitation. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.