Monday, August 31, 2015

The Chessman

The Chessman
by Dolores Gordon-Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

Being a book reviewer can sometimes be a logistical nightmare. For example, I was asked to review this book through MuggleNet, but I had to sign up for the pre-publication review site NetGalley to get a copy of it. When I did so, I found I hadn't been given permission to download this book and while waiting for the publisher to clear me to read it, I started using the site to review other books. By the time I had a chance to read this book, someone else had already reviewed it for MuggleNet. But I read it anyway, and I enjoyed it, and I am now plugged into a fantastic opportunity to review lots of new books at no charge, proving once again it's an ill wind that blows no good.

This book, scheduled for release in December 2015, is the ninth in the series of Jack Haldean murder mysteries. They are period pieces, set in 1920s England. The hero is a mystery writer who sometimes consults with local police or Scotland yard to solve real-life murders. He has a game leg resulting from his service in World War I, or rather as it was known then, the Great War. And in this book, at least, he is revealed to have a cousin who lives in the quaint village of Croxton Ferriers, where a man's body is found gruesomely murdered, wrapped in a carpet with a bouquet of lilies and stuffed into a cupboard in the vestry of the local church.

The circumstances of the murder suggest two things about the killer: first, that he is a dangerous lunatic; and second, that he is a local bloke who knows his way around the village, and particularly, his way into the normally locked church. Called in by his cousin to aid Inspector Ashley, Jack sniffs out a pool of suspects that narrows rapidly from everyone in town to three or four men - really only two, when it comes to brass tacks - but as bodies continue to drop and suspicion on the likeliest suspects continues to be thwarted by iron-clad alibis, a solution remains elusive.

The killer definitely shows signs of being deranged, sending taunting letters to his victims before their deaths identifying himself as the Chessman and leaving pieces from an expensive chess set at the scene of each crime. Hanging the murders around the neck of the right man is difficult when the identity of a couple of the victims is in question and when the prime suspect's whereabouts at the time of each murder may or may not prove whether he could have done it. Connected with the murders is a set of mining shares that have suddenly become worth a lot of money, the heart of a beautiful but unhappily married woman, the uncontrolled rage of a man maimed in the war, another man's desperation to hide his disgraceful war record, the death of a blackmailer who conspired to steal his own wife's diamonds, the criminal affairs of a chauffeur who happens to be his boss's illegitimate son, and lots of problems with drug addiction.

I thought this was a brilliantly structured whodunit, featuring a series of murders that took on entirely different aspects as the apparent motives changed, and a sleuth who puts himself in terrible danger more than once to solve the crime. Maybe I'm brilliant too, because I actually guessed how it was all going to work out long before it occurred to the sleuths, but my guess wouldn't have been worth anything without the evidence they uncovered. I could definitely see myself going back to the beginning and reading this whole series straight through from book 1, which is A Fete Worse Than Death.

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