Do 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’ Sansom trilogy. Sansom 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 Sansom 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. Sansom’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. Sansom 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.