Shortly after my novel Enemy Queen was published, I discovered that another novel which employed chess as a theme, Spurious Games, had been published at about the same time in England. Both books also featured a murder mystery, along with a good dose of wicked humor.
It turned out that the author of Spurious Games, David Jenkins, belonged to the same Goodreads chess group that I did, so I reached out to him, and we became long-distance friends. Both he and I had full careers before trying our hands at authoring novels, we’re about the same age, and we seem to share a number of other interests and perspectives.
I am happy to offer here, a review of his novel, Spurious Games:
Fascinating, Hilarious, and Beautifully Told
Spurious Games by David Jenkins is a droll, irreverent, and thoroughly entertaining novel. It pretends to be a murder mystery, but is actually a satirical novel of ideas, many of which, in addition to being hilarious, are probing and thought-provoking.
The “plot,” which comprises far less of the story than would be the case in a traditional murder mystery, concerns a serial killer preying on chess players in an English town. Because of the chess connection, police Superintendent Polgooth, an unrelentingly officious and bumptious buffoon, feels he has no choice but to call upon detectives, officers, and an eccentric professor, who are chess players themselves, and have connections to the local chess scene. He desperately needs them to help analyze the obscure, taunting messages left by the serial killer. This sets up a persistently jocular interplay, where patient, methodical, analytic chess players—especially Detective Inspector John Logos, past his prime, ailing physically, but determined to come off desk duty for his last hurrah—continually test the patience of the old-school superintendent, much in the way that Stan Laurel infuriated the eye-rolling, slow-burning Oliver Hardy.
The book is narrated in a voice which is erudite, intelligent, and articulate—I found it consistently charming and alluring. Episodes involving bondage clubs, magic acts, and the rousing resurrection of a well-known historical chess automaton, provide much color and many laughs.
This book is not for everyone. No book is. As an author myself, I am well aware of the unfortunate syndrome of bad reviews being served up by readers for whom a book is just a bad fit. So, I will offer a few suggestions to try to stave off such misalignments, which make for both unhappy readers and disappointed writers:
If you are a diehard fan of traditional, hard-boiled mysteries, which stick closely to the plot, and if you find frequent asides, observations, and excursions into matters scientific, philosophical, and pedagogical tiresome—this book is probably not for you.
If you are a stickler for realistic dialogue, you may be irked by the fact that, pretty much, every character in this book speaks with the same cadence and eloquent charm as the omniscient narrator. I, personally, found the sardonic wit and wordplay of the narrator a joy, so for me, having the characters mimic that voice was just additionally joyful. And the story is more of a send-up than a gritty, realistic tale, so I saw no problem with it. But if this sort of thing is a sore point for you, then it’s probably best to avoid this novel.
Finally, there is the chess. I, myself, wrote a novel where chess was a theme, and while my novel had far less actual chess in it than does Spurious Games, I nonetheless had a few readers who complained bitterly about having to plow through any amount of chess strategy and tactics whatsoever. Spurious Games features a good deal of chess, including diagrams, and full, notated games. If you’re a chess aficionado you’ll love it. I believe you can enjoy this novel even if you know nothing about chess, but to do so, you’ll have to willingly accede to missing out on a tiny sliver of the work’s gestalt.
I highly recommend Spurious Games. It is a funny, intelligent, and engaging novel, with lovably outrageous characters, and interesting, unexpected meanderings. David Jenkins is a brilliant fellow, and a gifted author. I look forward to his next work.