Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.
How does one find books that have fallen out of the mainstream consciousness? It's a good question to ask, because titles tend to sink like stones without a marketing machine behind them or a place in the canon. Every once in a while, though, someone will pipe up with unexpected praise for a forgotten book, and when that happens I sit up and take notice. So as fantasy author Daniel Abraham heaped kudos on Walter Tevis' chess-centric 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit during a recent installment of PodCastle, I added it my to-read list.
No one has ever taken Beth Harmon very seriously. Orphaned at age eight and confined to the Methuen Home, she moves through her days in a narcotic haze, force-fed the tranquilizers the orphanage's matron uses to make her charges easy to manage. But one day something cuts through her drugged fog: She sees the orphanage's dumpy janitor mulling over a strange game in the basement, a game played with black and white pieces on a checkered board, a game called chess. Beth pesters him until he agrees to teach her how to play, and after a few matches she discovers the strange ability within herself to unfold strategies entirely within her mind. She has a gift, one that could take her all the way to Russia, the nation which holds chess almost in holy awe. But before that can happen, Beth will need to conquer all the naysayers without and her hidden demons within.
You've got to hand it to Tevis. Though I find playing chess only slightly more pleasurable than a colonoscopy, he somehow manages to move it into the realm of thriller, transforming movements on the board into action every bit as enjoyable as the wildest car chase. It's an achievement. So why then has The Queen's Gambit fallen into obscurity? Much of it probably has to do with his protagonist. Not just unlikeable, Beth seems almost an embodiment of Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes." Every time she gets near to a grand achievement, she methodically sabotages it with drugs or drink or unenjoyable sex with near strangers. It's perplexing, maddening amd infuriating, and by the end of the book you want to shake her. It doesn't help that Tevis oddly reserves more criticism for religious types who oppose communism than for the oppressive Russian Bear itself. An engaging Gambit that doesn't quite pay off.
(Picture: CC 2006 by We Are CS)