The Chessman by Dolores Gordon-Smith

The ChessmanSir Matthew Vardon was an unpleasant man. We meet him extorting some shares from a drug addict. Successful, he leaves the desperate young man with a syringe full of a potentially lethal dose… When next we meet him, however, it is at his own funeral. He died of apparent apoplexy – but a note is found in his effects: “I AM KILLING YOU SLOWLY. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. THE CHESSMAN”

Days later, Isabelle Stanton and Sue Castradon are arranging the flowers in the church. But it’s not just flowers they find in a cupboard. It’s a body, with the hands and feet removed and the face battered beyond all recognition. And next to the body – an ornate chess-piece…

It seems that the Chessman has a plan – well, a hit-list at least. But in the meantime, Isabelle Stanton has contacted her brother – the writer-cum-amateur detective Jack Haldean. But he’ll have to move fast to stop the death count from rising even further…

So, back to Dolores Gordon-Smith’s Jack Haldean series, first visited um… five reviews ago. It was while reading that one that I spotted the latest available for review on Netgalley. As I was enjoying the first one, I thought I’d sample the latest in the series. And I’m really glad I did.

Very much written in the Golden Age style, this was an absolute treat. Jack Haldean is an affable lead – no obvious quirks apart from a dodgy leg – and there’s a pleasing array of suspects, although for large parts of the narrative, the reader won’t know which direction to look in.

The serial killer idea is rather hard to marry to the whodunit format. I can think of one obvious success, The ABC Murders, (actually two, although I’ve rarely seen And Then There Were None referred to in that way) but others generally don’t pull it off so well – one problem is that with a cast of suspects, the victims tend to be anonymous which makes a motive hard to establish. If the killer instead works on the main cast, then it’s usually easy to spot the killer as the book progresses. It takes a clever plot to make you care about the victims and still get blind-sided by the identity of the villain.

Talking of the characters, there’s a lovely variety of characters on display – none of the two-dimensional stereotypes that often populated the books from the era that is being emulated here. There are only a few Golden Age books I can think of where I found myself caring as much about some of the characters as much as I did here – the final few pages in particular were lovely.

This book has a clever plot. Even an old dog like me had a couple of theories – all I’ll say is that they were both half-right and half-wrong. If I’d put them together in the right way… but no, I was fooled. It’s a clever game that the author plays here and I absolutely loved it.

UK readers – it’s out at the end of the month, so go pester your library to order a copy of it now. It’s an absolute cracker. Highly Recommended.

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36 comments

  1. “The serial killer idea is rather hard to marry to the whodunit format. I can think of one obvious success, The ABC Murders, (actually two……..”
    There is another one: Cat Of Many Tails by Ellery Queen.

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  2. Sounds fun. Out of interest, is there any chess in the book beyond the choice of motif? I used to play a lot of competitive chess, and I’m still fairly interested in it. I love to see it crop up in fiction, but I’m yet to find a mystery that uses it really well. (In fact I’d often prefer the chess was just window dressing than they try to use it seriously and completely balls it up, like in The Flanders Panel.)

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      • The Flanders Panel would be a complete tour de force if it worked.

        Without giving too much away, the chess position in the eponymous painting is supposed to function as a) a retrograde analysis problem b) a standard forward-play mate in X problem and c) a very specific metaphor for the characters and events of the plot. The intricacy of that is just mindblowing.

        But it’s broken in all three regards. And not just slightly. The retrograde puzzle has no solution and the standard puzzle has multiple solutions. To talk about point c) would be a spoiler.

        I’m completely fine with authors mis-characterizing chess in fiction (as a shorthand for a particular kind of person is the most common), but if it’s the focus of the book it needs to be properly researched. I’ve been called nitpicky with my vehement dislike of the book, but I don’t think it’s overcritical to say that a mystery based around a specific chess puzzle needs to actually have the position work and obey the rules of chess! It’d be like if there was a book called The Sudoku Murders and the top left square of the killer’s puzzle had three threes…

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      • Actually, I guess I could dimly imagine a book where all that was broken and it wouldn’t matter TOO much. But it’s not like the chess position is a MacGuffin – there are chapters and chapters dedicated to discussing it in minute detail! (I can’t remember exact dialogue, but it’s whole pages of stuff like “If the kiler plays Qf6+ then we’ll have to play Kg1.” Which is a complete waste over everyone’s time when the problem is so badly cooked.)

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      • You might be interested in The Bishop Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine.
        The following end game position on a chess board is found by the body of a man who apparently killed himself.:
        WHITE: King at QKtsq; Rook at QB8; Pawns at QR2 and Q2.
        BLACK: King at Q5; Knight at QKt5; Bishop at QR6; Pawns at QKt7 and QB7.
        It is White’s turn to move but he resigns since Black can mate in 5 moves. The solution is also provided in the book.

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      • Thanks Santosh. I’ve actually never read any S.S. Van Dine. Having read his weirdly snobbish “rules” for detective fiction, I’ve always assumed his books would annoy me. But maybe I’ll check that one out if there’s a chess angle.

        J.J. Mc: Bonkers good, or bonkers bad? Some of my favourite mysteries are bonkers!

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      • You might also be interested in the short story A Happy Solution by Raymund Allen, which has a chess angle. It appears in the collection Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards.

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      • Bonkers bad as far as I’m concerned, but maybe you would like it. As Ogden Nash wrote:
        Philo Vance
        Needs a kick in the pance.

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  3. Thanks for tempting me with the review – about to purchase some of her books online. I gather from your review that she isn’t just a contemporary ‘fair-play’ mystery writer, but one who consciously crafts her works in emulation of the classic ‘golden-age’ mystery?

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    • I think that’s a fair summary. Much closer to the Golden Age style in the sense of the whodunit than, say Carola Dunn or Nicola Upson, but with well-drawn characters, something that was often missing back then. As with any author though, I’d try one before buying a lot (as they tend not to be that cheap – I’ve looked!)

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      • There seems to be a few reasonably-priced second-hand copies, which were what I went for after reading the review. 🙂 Hoping that their quality would be closer to ‘The Chessman’ than ‘A Fete worse than death’…

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  4. Great review. I’ve heard this author speak on Freeman Wills Crofts at the Body in the Library event at the British Library this year, but I have never read any of her books. Would you recommend reading the series from the beginning or can you jump in quite easily at any point without missing significant bits of back story?

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