A Chess Mystery

Research for my new plot continues apace. By which I mean I’ve been ill in bed reading books about 19th century chess in between vomit attacks. When I’m better I’ll probably look at my “detailed notes” and find they’re nothing but skulls and question marks. One interesting problem when writing about specialized topics is how much detail to go into. Too much and you risk alienating all but the most hard-core audience, but too little and a story can seem insubstantial. This is too complicated a topic to get into when I’m semi-delirious on a Sunday evening, but what I do find interesting is how badly chess has been handled in the past. Here are some examples:

A Game of Chance (Jon Osborne, 2012)

This isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but that’s because I have a job where budding authors send me unsolicited manuscripts and I frequently have to decide between letting them down gently and calling a nurse. (Seriously, one book had punctuation that was 90% ellipses and a “plot” where the only incident of note was that the heroine really needed a piss. Until the aliens turned up. Not a comedy.)

Two serial killers are using Manhattan as a chessboard and real people as the pieces. That’s obviously not a sensible idea for a story, but it’s not necessarily a terrible one, given the right tone. Unfortunately, I don’t think Jon Osborne has ever actually played chess. Actually, he might never have read a book. There’s a grisly murder in the first chapter, and then literally nothing happens for 200 pages. I’m not abusing the word “literally” there: the characters fail to follow up on any leads and spend pages talking about restaurant menus and items of police procedure they clearly already know about.

The chess doesn’t even matter. The killers are repeating pre-existing famous games, and the detectives never bother to investigate the chess angle at all. Halfway through it becomes a Mafia story, but when that peters out the detective “solves” the case by overhearing the killers murdering each other. You see, they’re handily staying in the room above her in her hotel! But she even manages to botch going upstairs to arrest them. Not a comedy.

A Game of Chance is going to get its own post, because it’s terrible enough to be wildly instructive, but here’s a writing tip by way of preview: If you find yourself writing dialogue where all the characters are complaining that things are boring, that’s not clever or meta. Your book is boring. Fix it. Preferably not by ditching the plot and adding Mafia stereotypes.

Checkmate at the Beauty Pageant (David Kessler, 2011)

An evil criminal mastermind has kidnapped 32 beauty queens and is forcing them to face off as pieces in a deadly game of chess. Only a retired Mossad agent can save the day. Now that you’ve read that sentence, you already know whether you want to read this or not. The chess is ultimately irrelevant, but not completely inaccurate. There’s even a plot twist. But the author, despite apparently having published a number of books, can’t spell or punctuate. And the awful sexism is only remotely tolerable because it’s clearly the fantasy of someone who never stopped being twelve. Still, it’s better than A Game of Chance.

The Flanders Panel (Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 1990)

This ought to be brilliant. Julia is an art historian restoring a 15th century painting by a Flemish master featuring a chess game. She finds a hidden inscription asking “Who Killed the Knight?” and slowly realizes that the chess position is a retrograde analysis puzzle concealing the secret of a centuries’ old murder. In the present, someone starts sending her moves based on the same position, and one by one her friends start to die, represented by captures in the game. She recruits the help of a chess genius from the local club to help her try and solve both mysteries before it’s too late. It’s a dense, complicated book, full of diagrams and in-depth discussions about chess.

The audacity of this is incredible. The chess position in the painting has to work both as a retrograde analysis puzzle AND as a chess game which can be played forwards as a real game where the moves can all be seen as reasonable interpretations of events in the characters’ lives, with captures to coincide with the murders and a checkmate at the end, without either side having an obvious win from the start or the whole sequence being forced. In addition, all the pertinent captures are carried out by the black queen, which it quickly becomes apparent is the murderer’s avatar. I can’t imagine how I’d go about constructing such a position.

And apparently neither can Pérez-Reverte, because the position doesn’t actually fulfil any of those criteria, he just says it does and hope you don’t actually stop to think about it at all.

The retrograde puzzle is completely and trivially broken, which ruins half of the plot straight off, and the chess game in the present is bollocks, with numerous pointless moves and missed checkmates. The “genius” from the chess club is an idiot, and Julia is entirely passive. While this is partly characterization, the plot resolves itself without her taking a single decision. She doesn’t know how to play chess, so her friend makes all the moves for her, and Julia does nothing to solve the murders or stop the killer. She might as well have not bothered to turn up to her own story.

Pérez-Reverte is so preoccupied with having his characters engage in simplistic philosophical discussions that he doesn’t even bother to explain the most basic practical elements of the plot. The murderer communicates their moves by leaving notes for the heroine to find, but it’s never explained how Julia makes her moves, when she doesn’t know who the killer is or how to contact them.

It’s a real shame, because Pérez-Reverte is a great writer. But this is to chess what the Da Vinci Code is to Catholicism. And if Dan Brown is going to be roundly mocked for his feeble research, then Pérez-Reverte can’t be let off the hook just because he knows how to write a nice sentence.

It does, however, contain one of the few lines of fiction to make me spit drink across the room: “The bishop, with its diagonal movement, is the most homosexual of the pieces.”

Not a comedy.

2 thoughts on “A Chess Mystery

  1. Sorry to learn you’ve been unwell. I read The Flanders Panel a Short while ago and he certainly fooled me. In the end I thought the author was just out to showcase his ‘great knowledge’ of everything he contrived to write about.

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