Thursday, 29 April 1999

Victor Canning: Queen's Pawn (1969)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 242

The way Queen's Pawn works is basically like a caper movie, or, rather, two caper movies stitched together. It is the story of the dreams of two men, Raikes and Sarling. Raikes dreams of regaining the ancestral home of his family, marrying and bringing up children, of trout fishing in the rivers around his land.

At the beginning of Queen's Pawn, Raikes has just about achieved his ambitions, having made a large sum of money through a series of frauds. He is about to buy back the house; he is engaged to the daughter of a local landowner. But then a tiny slip made in one of the frauds catches up with him. In the desk drawer of an office used temporarily to give substance to a non-existent company, he had left behind a catalogue from a fishing tackle manufacturer, with a mark next to an unusual float that he coveted (and bought from the proceeds of the fraud). The owner of the company on which the fraud was perpetrated found this and traced Raikes through the shop which printed the catalogue.

The company's owner was the other main character, Sarling. Sarling was the youngest in his family, and was always the one who was left out. An unprepossessing appearance (made positively unpleasant by burns to the face in a fire) didn't help his self-image. His dream is to gain revenge on the world, to show everyone that he is a force to be reckoned with. To this end, he has formulated a scheme to carry out an amazing crime, and aims to recruit gifted criminals like Raikes through blackmail to help him realise it.

Raikes does not take kindly to being blackmailed; freedom to do what he likes is a major part of his dream. So one of the capers is Sarling's plot against the world; the other is Raikes' plan to free himself from Sarling's influence by murder.

Queen's Pawn has quite a complex plot for a thriller of its length, and it tends to spell out this plot in a rather heavy-handed way. This does not leave much room for background or characterisation. Some of the former is sketched in to go with Sarling's plan, which is fairly interesting. (As well as the obvious chess/manipulation reference, the title refers to this.) All in all, it is a fairly mundane thriller, typical of the early seventies.

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