European crime fiction in the crosshairs
n°4 February-March-april 2006


The Crime Fiction Chessboard:
The Strategy and Tactics of Crime Fiction

by Moez Lahmédi
Translation: Claire Gorrara

Moez Lahmédi is 29 and a French teacher in Haffouz (Kairouan, Tunisia) and is studying for a doctorate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Sousse University. As well as crime fiction, his research interests encompass the sociology of literature. He is affiliated with the Department of Communication Studies at UCL (Belgium).
Photo de J. van der Hulst et E.Borgers

One of the preferred options for crime fiction authors when creating a narrative structure is to adopt a ludic writing strategy. We know, of course, that, from its beginnings, the crime novel has been conceived of as a game with rules that are modelled on chess: Van Dine’s twenty rules were predicated on this ludic logic and identified key characters ‘with simple pieces on a chess board: the king, the queen, the joker etc. Each piece has a “value” and can only move in a pre-determined pattern – the same can be said for the detective, the killer and the suspects1.

This association between the crime story and the game of chess explains in part why the crime novel has been undervalued during the twentieth century. Reduced to a simple game of narrative permutations, the detective story has unjustly been deprived of any literary worth: ‘I would prefer to play at twenty questions which at least avoids having to digest hundreds of appallingly badly written books’ wrote Edmund Wilson in an article entitled Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’.2

Today, to talk of reading a crime novel or a literary novel as a game is no longer to judge crime fiction negatively. Writers and contemporary critics have come to recognise the eminently ludic nature of not only the crime novel but all narrative activity. The literary text, as Barthes tells us, is ‘an exceptional object whose linguistic form underlines a certain paradox: it is immutably structured and yet infinitely renewable: something like the game of chess’.3

Michel Picard and Umberto Eco also conceive of the text as a ludic and strategic space. From this perspective, reading becomes a sort of intellectual duel between two strategists, the author and the reader. To understand the text is to understand the writing strategy around which the narrative is woven: ‘To generate a text is to implement a strategy that takes into account the future possible moves of another – as with all strategy. As with battle strategy (or that of chess; or any gaming strategy), the strategist has in mind the model of an adversary’.4

In the domain of crime fiction, the textual game is often represented as a metanarrative through reference to the game of chess. Poe’s Maezel’s Chess Player, Hubert Monteilhet’s The Return of the Ashes, Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Pérez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel and The Fencing Master and Raymond Smullyan’s The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes are all grounded, in a structural sense, in ludic schemas. The games of chess played at the heart of each novel are generally metatextual (one could even say ‘metaludic’) representations of the textual game itself.

The characters who excel at chess are often sly and devious individuals whom the reader and detective should mistrust. Throughout The Return of the Ashes by Monteilhet, we follows a ludic confrontation between two excellent chess players: Stan who wants to seize the fortune of his Jewish wife, a woman whom he believed to have died during the Second World War and Elisabeth Wolf (his wife who is unrecognisable after having undergone cosmetic surgery) who, for her part, wishes to win back her husband’s love. The last game of chess described in the novel demonstrates the superior intellect of Mme Wolf (the narrator) who remains unbeatable even after her death, because the journal she had kept becomes a prime piece of evidence pointing to her killer:

- What do you want to do with me?
- What do you deserve? I answered.
- I really don’t know… I don’t know
I would really like to invent a new punishment for myself, one that would give you some pleasure. But I can’t make it out clearly… I feel that you would need to be at least a kind of god to judge me. You must know better than me what I need.

The crime novel is therefore, by definition, a ludic space, the arena for strategic battles and tactical manoeuvres both intra (between characters) and extra textual (between the reader and the writer).

In Daniel Pennac’s The Fairy Gunmother (collection Folio, Gallimard 1987), the author makes reference to Stefan Zweig’s The Chess Player (p.176) as a kind of palimpsest and in so doing underlines the importance of the chess playing analogy for the narrative economy of his novel: each chapter is in some way a narrative ‘blitz’ that, once reintegrated into the chain of events of the story, leads to the defeat of the guilty party. From this perspective, the narrative progression of the plot is but the succession of moves that bind the two main players, that is to say the criminal and the detective. We could therefore say that in the (crime) fictional universe, the game of chess constitutes a metaphorical micro-representation of the battle between Good and Evil, between black and white, between the truth and lies.

On the white pages of the literary object, black print seems to suggest the outline of an ‘ink chessboard6, a chess board on which each character plays the role allotted him. We must recognise, like Muñoz in The Flanders Panel, that ‘there are many similarities between the game of chess and criminal investigations’.7 The fictional universe of the crime novel can only be understood, it seems, as a textual chess board on which characters, like excellent actors, mime the narrative model of the ludic chess game. When he spoke of this similarity between the real chess board and the textual chess board, George Steiner stated:

‘Perhaps as the model of a cosmos that encloses it, the game of chess invariably offers the advantage of appearing as a whole fraction of the world, as a small mirror with circumscribed content, as a finished object, as a totality despite the infinite number of permutations that it is able to generate. Such a model is likely to be ‘applicable’ to any non anarchic world and particularly to the literary text.8

A one and the same ludic logic regulates therefore the internal workings of both the game of chess and the literary object: the finite nature of the ludic space or what Michel Picard calls ‘the play area’ and the infinite number of ludic scenarios. These two principles can be said to be variations on the Nietzchean dichotomy (Apollonian/Dionysian)9, and effectively guarantee the pleasurable outcome for the player who must be extremely vigilant when playing a (textual) move because, as we have already noted, each move or interpretative gesture can quite literally invert the course of the game. In the crime novel, nothing is therefore lost because everything is open to interpretation.

When speaking of a narrative instance that centred on a surveyor climbing a tree, G.K. Chesterton remarked:

[…] the reader who plays at hide and seek with the author must always, like this, follow his instinct and be suspicious, must always be saying to himself: ‘Yes, I know that a surveyor could climb a tree; I am aware of the fact that there are trees and that there are surveyors but what are you cooking up with these two facts? Why are you making this particular surveyor climb a tree in this particular story, you warped little fellow?10

The chess player, the book character and the reader-player are, from this perspective, all true artists who must act in order for the ludic project to have meaning. As Boileau-Narcejac admirably said: ‘The creator invents the chessboard, the serial writer invents the moves.’11


1 Boileau-Narcejac, Le Roman policier, coll. ‘Que sais-je’ PUF, p. 55. | back |
2 In Autopsies du roman policier, ed. Uri Eisenzweig, 10/18, 1983, p. 96. | back |
3 Le Plaisir du texte, Seuil, Paris, 1973, p.83. Emphasis my own. | back |
4 Umberto Eco, Lector in fabula, Grasset, 1985, p. 65. | back |
5 Editions Denoël, 1961, p. 175. | back |
6 See Echiquiers d’encre. Le jeu d’échecs et les lettres (XIXe- XXe siècle), edited by Jacques Berchtold, Droz, 1998. | back |
7 Pérez-Reverte, trans. Jean-Pierre Quijano, J.–Cl, Lattès 1993, Le Livre de Poche, p. 218. | back |
8 See Echiquiers d’encre, op.cit, p. 20. | back |
9 Marc Lits, Le roman policier: introduction à la théorie et à l’histoire d’un genre littéraire, Editions de C.E.F.A.L, Liège 1993, p. 123: ‘the crime novel is but the reflection of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles already elaborated by Nietszche. They endlessly oppose one another in us as readers and make us sometimes opt for a desire for order and sometimes feed our appetite for disorder’.
| back |
10 'Comment écrire un roman policier' in Autopsies du roman policier, op.cit, p.48-49. | back |
11 Quoted by Marc Lits in Pour lire le roman policier, Bruxelles-Paris, De Boeck-Duculot, 1989, p. 7. | back |


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