MephistoI’ve been pretty ill this weekend, so just a quick real-life mystery today. As is usual in the new year, I’ve been rooting through old notebooks to see which half-formed plots I’ve got buried there still interest me. My post about the Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes reminded me about an idea for a plot about a chess automaton.

In my story, naturally the automaton appears to commit a dastardly crime: in this case, the murder of a chess champion during a chess demonstration, on stage in front of hundreds of a people. I’m pretty pleased with my “design” for the automaton and the subsequent murder. The automaton is shaped like the goddess of chess Caissa, and she’s unpacked and constructed from her component parts in full view of the audience before the game begins, to prove that there’s no-one concealed inside. I’m pretty sure it would work, and in fact I’m surprised that none of the automata exhibited at the time employed a similar trick. Now all I need is an actual plot to go with the crime!

Automata don’t feature as much in mystery fiction as you might expect. Despite being incredibly creepy, and an obvious candidate for “impossible” murders, there’s only really The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, and that’s a real hodge-podge of brilliant ideas and terrible execution.

Chess automata were a huge phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical figures which could apparently play chess of their own accord. The Turk is the most famous, but there were quite a few which toured Europe and America, playing against the public, chess masters, celebrities and even royalty. Most of them were simply elaborate trick cabinets; the operator would open various windows in the base to show that they were apparently filled with cogs, but actually there was space for a human player to be concealed inside and operate the machine.

But Mephisto was different, apparently. Designed as a stylized devil, Mephisto was apparently “remotely controlled by electromechanical means”. But beyond that it’s hard to find any concrete information about it. How did it work? Or how might such a machine work? Was it just a cover story to distract from another concealed player, or was it really possible in 1876 to design an electromechanically operated arm that could move chess pieces around a board?

4 thoughts on “Mephisto

  1. Rich, do you still recall your automaton solution? I know you probably wouldn’t want to spoil it, but the idea sounds lovely.

    I’ve also tried writing several stories on this topic–a fascinating one. Have you ever read magician Ricky Jay’s book on the subject?



    P.S. Please come back–you and I may disagree on this or that, but I love the blog!

    • Hi Karl. Thanks for the kind comment! I’m hoping to return to blogging soon, but I’m just so busy.

      I’ve actually been working on my Caissa story a bit this year. It’s now an epistolary novel set during the Congress of Vienna, so there’s a lot of research to do, but the central impossible crime and solution remains the same.

      The Turk comes up in a lot of places, of course, but I haven’t read any books dedicated to it or other chess automata. Is Ricky Jay the American who built a replica Turk? I think I’ve seen some YouTube videos.

      • Thank you for the kind words as well.

        Congratulations on the story’s progress, and I won’t ask you any more questions about it, then. (For this one, we shall regard spoilers somewhat… 🙂 ) An epistolary novel set during the Congress of Vienna sounds fantastic.

        I’m in the same situation regarding notebooks of half-formed plot ideas. I seem to write down ideas wherever I go, so I remember (e.g.) going to a strawberry festival and writing down the first few ideas for a tale set there. Mysteries, ghost stories, historical fiction–there’s always something writer-types are scribbling…

        I understand about the busyness, and I hope all’s going well. I agree with you completely that there needs to be a space to discuss the techniques of the detective story, including spoilers, more than simply reviewing.

        As for Jay, he remains one of my favorite magicians of all time; for all that he was inspired in technique from Cardini and (especially) Dai Vernon, his talent remains remarkable, and, even when I know how the trick is done, I can never see Jay’s slight of hand. That is the sign of a master.

        The book is Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. Excellent background material for the budding mystery writer; Carr would have loved it.



Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s