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The Pawn

Short Story (2170 words)

Victor Canning's first attributed short story for adults, though he had already contributed to boys' magazines, where everything was published without author credits.

Carlos Mattano is an elderly chess champion and an obsessive jewel collector. He is disturbed by sounds of an intruder one night and confronts the burglar, who turns out to be a keen chess player. The burglar agrees not to go ahead with the robbery if Carlos will give him a game.

They play. Carlos finds it hard to concentrate and gets into a losing position. However, the burglar inadvertently moves a pawn to the wrong square, transforming the position in Carlos's favour. Carlos plays on and wins, though by not correcting the position he has effectively cheated. The burglar leaves. Carlos then discovers that while the game was in progress the burglar's accomplice has been at work on his safe in the next room. But the next day the big diamond, the chief object of the burglary, is returned since it turns out to be a fake.

This is apprentice work, and I doubt if Canning would thank anyone for reprinting it. The style is full of clichés and unnecessary adjectives. The characters and their motivations are poorly worked out. But it marked something special for him. In a letter to his parents in June 1934 he wrote:
You’ll be interested to hear that I’ve had a letter from the Evening News people (who published The Pawn) saying that the Bristol Evening World wants to re-publish it and will pay me three guineas for the privilege—some going, eh, nine guineas for three thousand (not quite that) words. Who said I couldn’t make a living writing?

Canning's first novel, Mr Finchley discovers his England, was published two months later in the summer of 1934.

Evening News on 7 May 1934.

Included in Crime and Detection, ed. John Higgins.