Countries, Classes, Creeds as One in Love of Chess*

ChessDo you play chess? If you do, then you know that it’s a game of strategy and of anticipating the other person’s next move(s). It requires reflection and thinking, rather than physical skill, to outwit your opponent and win.

Chess has a very long history, and we certainly see it woven through crime fiction. Little wonder, too, as it’s played all over the world. And a chess match is a competition; that fact can add tension to a story, too. Here are just a few instances of chess moves in the genre. I know you’ll know of many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Colourman features retired art dealer Josiah Amberley, who hires Sherlock Holmes when his much-younger wife disappears. Amberley’s an avid chess player who’d struck up a friendship with Dr. Ray Ernest, also a chess lover. Amberley’s wife also struck up a friendship with Ernest, that became more; and now, Amberley suspects they ran off together. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes is busy with another case, so Dr. Watson does the ‘legwork’ on this investigation. Between them, the two sleuths discover that this isn’t quite as simple as a case of a greedy wife running off with a lover. And, interestingly, chess gives Holmes a clue about the case.

In Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Captain Hastings returns to England from Argentina for a visit. Naturally, he looks up his old friend Hercule Poirot, only to find that Poirot is about to leave for South America. His plans have to change, though, when he gets drawn into a mystery involving a dangerous international conspiracy. Poirot and Hastings find themselves pitted against four ruthless, brilliant, and powerful enemies. These people will stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their aim; and investigating these murders draws Poirot and Hastings closer to the truth about the conspiracy. One of the victims is Gilmour Wilson, a chess grandmaster. He’s playing against Dr. Savoronoff, a Russian émigré, when he suddenly collapses and dies of what seems to be poison. At the time of his death, a group of people were watching the match, so it’s hard to work out how he might have been poisoned. Then, Poirot discovers something about this particular chess set that explains how it happened. The next task is to find out whether Wilson was the intended victim; and, if so, who would have wanted to kill him. It all turns out to be linked to the Big Four’s plan.

Rex Stout’s Gambit features the exclusive Gambit Chess Club. Matthew Blount, a member of the club, has played chess a few times against magician and party-stunt trickster Paul Jerrin. He’s enjoyed the experience, and the matches have led to an interesting idea for a club competition. Jerrin will sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous matches against other club members, who are in other rooms. Moves will be communicated by messenger. All goes well enough at first, and the competition certainly garners interest. Then, Jerrin suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since Blount brought the hot chocolate to Jerrin, he’s the suspect of most interest to the police. But Blount’s daughter Sally doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She hires Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to find out who really killed Jerrin and why.

There’s also Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, the first in his Bernard ‘Bernie’ Samson trilogy. Samson is a middle-aged agent for MI6, who works in the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, word has come out that there’s a KGB mole in the agency. And there are several possible suspects, too. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to top-secret information, so he or she has to be found immediately. So Samson looks for anyone who might have connections or opportunities to meet with members of the KGB. One part of the trail leads to a London chess club, Kar’s Club. Samson’s had word that a Russian player stops in there occasionally, so he wants to find out whether that person may be the link he needs. Samson doesn’t get all of the answers he wants just from visiting the club, but that part of the investigation gives the reader an interesting look at chess clubs of the day.

Of course, there are sleuths who play chess, too. Fans of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, will tell you that he’s adept at the game. He enjoys playing against live opponents, but he also plays from books. He even plays against himself at times. There’s also Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock. This series begins in 1934 Wroclaw/Breslau, where Mock is a police officer and Criminal Counsellor to the police department. He is also a frequenter of Madame le Goef’s club, where members can get food, drink, and female companionship. Mock goes there every Friday, but it’s not just because of the women. Madame has two employees who can play chess, and that’s the real appeal for Mock. In fact, everyone he works with knows better than to disturb him on Friday nights unless it’s truly, unavoidably urgent. It’s an interesting layer to his character.

See what I mean? Chess is woven through crime fiction, just as it is through many real-life cultures. And it can add a layer of character development, a bit of tension, and even a trail for the sleuth to follow. I’ve given a few examples here. Your move.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ Chess.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Len Deighton, Marek Krajewski, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout

35 responses to “Countries, Classes, Creeds as One in Love of Chess*

  1. Another splendid topic, Margot. A novel that comes to mind immediately is The Flanders Panel, by the excellent Arturo Peréz-Reverte. There is a painting of a game of chess – both the picture and the game play a key role in the plot. A crime novel is itself a kind of game played with the reader . . .

    • You know, Christine, you’re quite right about the crime novel as a sort of game. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, but you’re right. And if you think about it, you could even argue that there’s a sort of chess game going on between a fictional killer and the sleuth in lots of crime fiction. Thanks for the ‘food for thought’ (and for the kind words). Oh, and I have to confess that I’ve not (yet) read The Flanders Panel. But you’re not the first to recommend it; it does sound good. I shall have to move it from radar to wish list.

  2. Lovely to see the Deighton get a mention Margot! I would also include the Ellery Queen novel THE PLAYER ON THE OTHER SIDE – I should re-read it as it has been a long time bit i remember liking it a lot

    • Isn’t the Deighton great, Sergio? I really do like that chess club scene. And thanks so much for mentioning the Queen, too. Definitely an oversight on my part, so thanks for filling in the gap.

  3. R. T.

    Note the distinction between chess and draughts in the opening paragraphs of “The Murders on the Rue Morgue.” Poe makes some interesting points.

  4. I’m amazed! I couldn’t have come up with any books involving chess even though I’ve read two of these! Perhaps my subconscious blots them out ever since the time I was beaten by a ten-year-old boy in four moves… 😉

  5. Col

    I’ve read a couple of the Mock books and didn’t remember that aspect of his character, why am I not surprised you did! Amazing recall!

  6. Margot: In the Travis McGee mysteries of John D. MacDonald there are often chess games on the Busted Flush between McGee and his good friend, Meyer. Occasionally they are distracted by lovely young women.

  7. Given that chess is such an intense game and the players are usually so passionate about the game, it’s not surprising it shows up in crime fiction. Great examples, Margot and more books to add to my every growing list of TBR.

  8. This is the perfect example of what I was referring to in my response to Michael’s comment on the previous post. Off the top of my head I can’t think of even one example where chess was involved. If only I had your memory… You’re knowledge of crime fiction is by far the best I’ve ever encountered.

  9. Margot, this is a theme after my own heart Chess — such a beautiful game! Katherine Neville’s debut novel EIGHT (1990) is one of the finest “chess” thrillers I have read in recent years. A modern novel, It revolves around one woman’s search for an antique chess set, set in France (if I’m not mistaken). It has everything that a good thriller should have. In fact, I’m going to read it again and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

    • So glad you liked this post, Prashant. And thank you very, very much for suggesting Eight. It sounds intriguing! It’s a perfect example, too, of what I had in mind with this post. I’ll have to look it up.

  10. I also thought of Travis McGee when I read this post — those are probably the only stories that could talk about chess without boring me to death.

  11. A.M. Pietroschek

    Besides the appreciated reminders on Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I remembered one of two crime fiction movies due your formidable work:

    Sadly my connection is throttled, so I couldn’t find out, if it is based on a worthy book.

  12. A priceless antique chess set plays a pivotal role in John Dickson Carr’s The Nine Wrong Answers, Margot, one of my favorite mysteries.

  13. kathyd

    This is such an undiscussed, but interesting aspect of some mysteries. After all, an investigation is somewhat of a chess game between detective and suspect.
    But we can’t miss a fascinating chess game between Harry Hole and an imprisoned Roma gangster in “Nemesis.” It’s about more than chess though, as Harry tries to find out information from the prisoner, someone who can outfox him.
    This is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read with bit of social conscience thrown in about mistreatment of the Roma people.

    • Thanks, Kathy. And you know, you’re right about the interaction between sleuth and criminal. It really could be likened to a chess game. Thanks, too, for mentioning that chess game between Hole and the Roma gangster. It’s a great context for a highly-charged exchange.

  14. Great topic, Margot. Following up on Christine’s comment: it occurs to me that the Golden Age puzzle mystery especially is a kind of chess match between reader and author, and the author – the good ones, anyway – usually wins! 🙂

    • I like the way you put that, Bryan (and thanks for the kind words). I think you’re right about the ‘chess match’ between GA authors and readers. When it works really well, the author generally wins – and the reader generally doesn’t mind. You gotta love it!

  15. SteveHL

    Margot, there is a series of at least two books by David Delman about a police detective / chess expert named Jacob Horowitz. One of the books, The Last Gambit , is largely about chess players. Also, Stanley Ellin’s short story “Fool’s Mate”, is about an obsessive chess player.

    • Oh, thanks, SteveHL. That’s a series I’ve not dipped into (yet). And it sounds like an interesting series, too. I appreciate the suggestion, and it’s a great example of what I was getting at with this post.

  16. Lord Peter buys Harriet a very fancy chess-set in Gaudy Night – but no good will come of this…

  17. tracybham

    Sorry to be so late, Margot. I recently read two books of spy fiction that have a lot to do with chess: The Defection of A.J. Lewinter by Robert Littell, and Funeral in Berlin by Len Deighton. So, another Deighton book, but not the same series.

    • No worries, Tracy. The party never stops here. I admit I’ve not read the Littell, although I’ve heard of it. But it sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And the Deighton is a terrific example: thanks.

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