Only a Pawn in Their Game*

PawnsOne 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 But for one thing, she had no motive, since he had withdrawn his objection to a divorce.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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicholas Blake, Walter Mosley

22 responses to “Only a Pawn in Their Game*

  1. James Coakes

    I run murder mystery events over dinners. We usually have between four and six suspects and guests must determine method, motive and murderer, so each suspect must potentially be the murderer. The pawn is one of the plot lines that I use. The person playing the pawn distances himself from the actual murder and the pawn can seem very guilty. One of the challenges for the teams (tables) solving the crime is to work out what is happening by examining the connections, and taking apart the motives.

    It doesn’t really help that there is usually wine flowing at the events. It takes quite a clear mind to see beyond the obvious and unmask the puppet master pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

    • Your murder mystery events sound like fun, James. And it’s really interesting that you use the pawn plot line in some of those events. It’s got to be challenging to play that role effectively!

  2. Col

    I think the Mosley book sounds vaguely familiar, so I may have read it years ago. Again your powers of recall, put me to shame!

  3. I think my favourite pawn is Matthew Shardlake in CJ Sansom’s books. He’s always getting shoved around, sometimes literally by Kings and Queens, but in the end he always manages to at least survive the game. And the Sherlock Holmes stories have a few pawns, as well as Violet Hunter. Jabez Wilson in The Red-Headed League springs to mind. And then there’s the poor goose in The Blue Carbuncle – one pawn things didn’t work out too well for… 😉

    • Haha! You’re right about that poor goose, FictionFan! And about Jabez Wilson. Seems it’s a plot point that Conan Doyle used more than once. Interesting… As to Shardlake, I clearly see your point. He is one of those pawns, though, who manages to survive, as you say. Just shows he’s cleverer than he’s given credit for, I suppose. And I appreciate the reminder of those novels. I really must spotlight one of them at some point.

  4. Nice post, Margot. Is a Death in the Kingdom worth a read? I haven’t managed to get to it yet…

  5. Why is it that when I know I must have loads of examples for one of your post, I can’t think of a single one? I do like the sound of The Beast Must Die Margot – another one for my never-ending list!

  6. Great choice Margot, I love this theme, especially as used in the Ellery Queen books such as TEN DAY’S WONDER, THE ORIGIN OF EVIL and of course, speaking of chess, THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE 🙂

    • Thank you, Sergio. And yes, those Queen books are great examples – thank you for filling in that gap. In fact, I almost used Ten Days Wonder in the post. In the end, I didn’t, so I’m very glad you did.

  7. Loved Nicholas Blake’s books. I thought this would be a post on books using the game of chess but I should have known that was too simplistic for you.

  8. Margot, I will look up Nicholas Blake’s “The Beast Must Die” and Andrew Grant’s “Death in the Kingdom.” I liked the examples you cited.

    • If you do get the chance to read those books, Prashant, I hope you’ll enjoy them. They’re very different to each other, and I’ll be keen to know what you think of them if you do read them.

  9. In a couple of other Agatha Christies (books and stories) there is a trope of a lowly female member of the household being used as a pawn – usually by a manipulative and seemingly-attractive man. It’s always rather a sad strand I think – the maid, as it might be, thinking she has a real boyfriend or fiancé…

  10. How nice, Margot. As you know I just read 13 at Dinner (and reviewed it) and recently I also read A Red Death by Mosley. Your other examples are good too.

  11. Great topic central to the mystery fiction aesthetic. Rawlins in Red Death is a good example of the many cases in the classic tough American tradition where the PI himself is used as a pawn. Also it occurs to me in the case of Lord Edgware Dies, we could make the argument that Poirot was being used as a pawn, at least for a time. But would it be more appropriate to refer to him as a knight? 🙂

    • Perhaps that would be more appropriate, Bryan 🙂 – You’re right, though; Poirot is used as a pawn at one point, and he doesn’t like it one bit! And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how there is that trope in ‘hardboiled’ PI fiction where the sleuth becomes the pawn. That’s a fascinating topic in itself, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s