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:

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Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 13

PoirotI still haven’t got round to watching the final series of Poirot. The most recent episodes have been pretty difficult to get through. Despite David Suchet’s unquestioned talent in the role – I expect he understands the character better than Christie ever did – the recent adaptations have been rather boring. Someone seems to have decided people love Poirot’s grandstanding so much that the explanation and resolution of the mystery should take up at least 25% of the running time. This leads to a mad rush to get through the plot and gather everyone together in the drawing room, followed by a turgid recap of the entire plot to drain all life out of the proceedings. While Poirot’s explanations are an essential part of the character, one of Christie’s many talents was the simplicity of her mysteries. Stretching a quick and elegant solution out to half an hour robs it of all its power. Continue reading

Death in Paradise, Series 3, Episode 2 (BBC, 2014)

Death in Paradise 3So I was entirely right in my predictions. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. As I said in my longer review of episode 1, a mystery being obvious isn’t necessarily a failing. Plenty of puzzles are designed to be solved. What’s more of a problem is the generally shoddy nature of the script in this second episode: a lot of clichés and half-hearted jokes, combined with a lot of scenes that just petered out into shrugs and knowing glances at Goodman’s clumsiness. I appreciate that Death in Paradise is a gentle, unchallenging show, but that’s no excuse for such insipid writing. Hopefully it’s just a blip. It’s a shame that such a weak episode came so early in Kris Marshall’s run. We’re still learning about his character, and early interactions make a much stronger impression on an audience than later ones. If this had been episode 7 or 8 in the series it would have felt less detrimental. As it was, it was the first time watching Death in Paradise that I considered skipping to the end. Continue reading


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?

Phoenix Wright, Dual Destinies (Capcom, 2013)

Dual DestiniesI’m slowly crawling my way through the latest Phoenix Wright game, Dual Destinies. I want to like them: the bombastic courtroom setting is funny; the impossible crimes are intricate and original. But they’re just so boring. Every possible ounce of subtlety is drained by a script that’s petrified you might misunderstand what’s going on. So the characters’ feelings are explained, at length, and then repeated again five minutes later. Clues and themes are reiterated again and again until it’s impossible to care any more.

Some of this is understandable. I tend to play each case straight through, but they’re also designed to be enjoyed in very short chunks. If someone is playing for five minutes every other day then repeating things is the only way to ensure they don’t get confused.

But the script doesn’t need to be so banal; endless platitudes and exaggerated shock or misery at every tiny setback or twist in the plot. Take this, for example:

“This is a homicide any way you slice it. In other words, we have a murder on our hands.”

Is there any context where that’s not a terrible line of dialogue?

Dual Destinies 2The biggest shame is that this most recent iteration actually has a better calibre of writing and plotting. The mysteries so far have been interesting, with genuinely clever third act twists. But the actual technical standard of the writing, the boring nuts and bolts of spelling and punctuation, has never been lower. I’d say as many 10% of the lines have errors, most often missing pronouns or mangled tenses like “Let’s see if the defense can response”. Apollo Justice, one of the main characters, talks about his “Chords of Steel”. It’s a common enough error, but the writers should know better: they’re vocal cords – physical cords of flesh. Much of the overarching plot revolves around bombs, but the writers don’t know the difference between “diffuse” and “defuse”. As an editor I understand that no long piece of text is ever going to be perfect, but Dual Destinies reads like no-one ever bothered to proof it at all.

And it’s not like the story branches or the text is procedurally generated, common difficulties in editing video game stories. The Phoenix Wright games are as linear as they get, and any given player is going to see the same 90% of the game text, in the same order. The developers could have printed it out and given it to people to read like a screenplay.

This is a full price game. I know how little proofreaders get paid. Can it really be worth putting out such a shoddy product to save the price of a dozen units?

Death in Paradise, Series 3 Episode 1 (BBC, 2014)

Death in Paradise 1So Richard Poole is out, Humphrey Goodman is in. Killing off the main character in a light-hearted mystery show is a long way from ideal, and I must admit I was surprised. They had a perfectly good excuse for Richard to leave at the end of Series 2, which would have rounded out his and Camille’s arc nicely. But perhaps Ben Miller pulled out after those scenes had been finalised. If that’s the case, then I think they’ve done the best they could with a very difficult situation. The new detective seems an amiable enough chap, and the soap opera is so low-key that I expect after a few episodes Richard Poole will be entirely forgotten. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that Poole is gone, because there wasn’t really anywhere sensible left to take the relationship between him and Camille. Continue reading

Death in Paradise Series 3, Episode 2 (Pre-Spoilers??)

Death in Paradise 2Just seen the new Death in Paradise. No time to review it at the moment, but generally I thought it was good. One weird thing: have they brought in a consultant or something to make the dialogue more authentic? Dwayne and Fidel seemed to have a few lines which were closer to creole than usual (or at least the creole I’m familiar with from a month mooching around Kingston and Treasure Beach). It had the weird effect of being simultaneously more and less convincing. It’s now more accurate, but it was a notable deviation from how the characters talked in previous series. Especially in combination with Danny John-Jules’ more consistent accent. I was reminded of Ross trying to impress his students in Friends. Continue reading

Sherlock: His Last Vow (BBC, 2014)

Interesting reactions to yesterday’s Sherlock finale. Mostly adulation, but some murmurs of discontent at the ending, including from my mother, who if it wasn’t for a lifetime of prudery would be a fully signed up Cumberbitch.

But at the risk of rank presumption, I’m going to suggest that people haven’t quite identified the source of their own discomfort. Obviously there’ll be massive spoilers for His Last Vow after the cut. Continue reading

The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (Raymond Smullyan, 1979)

CMoSHGrr. Too many people want to watch Sherlock, iPlayer keeps freezing. Better write a blog post, or I’ll just keep hitting refresh and ruin the whole thing.

With all the Sherlock mania at the moment, it’s hard to find much original to say. So here’s an unusual book that I used to love when I was a kid: The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, by the philosopher and mathematician Raymond Smullyan. With a title like that, you probably already know whether it’s your cup of tea! I’m sure even chess haters can appreciate that amazing cover though… Continue reading