Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review - The Chessmen of Doom by John Bellairs

Short review: Professor Childermass has to live in Maine for a summer to collect an inheritance from his brother. Naturally, he takes Johnny Dixon and Fergie Ferguson along with him. Naturally, there is evil black magic to be confronted as well.

An inheritance,
A mysterious poem,
A world-ending threat

Full review: Johnny Dixon, Professor Childermass, and Fergie Ferguson all return for another creepy mystery as they confront a madman bent upon destroying the world in The Chessmen of Doom. Oddly for a Johnny Dixon/Professor Childermass mystery they don’t have to go out seeking trouble, instead trouble comes directly to them.

The book starts when Professor Childermass learns that his wealthy brother Peregrine has died and left the Professor his considerable fortune. The only catch is that the Professor is required to live on Peregrine’s Maine estate for the summer before he can claim the inheritance. The Professor is also given a cryptic poem and told he cannot bring any paid help with him for the summer (he is required to maintain the place without any hired hands). The Professor recruits Johnny and Fergie to accompany him (they aren’t paid help after all), and sets out to spend the summer in Maine.

The Professor is concerned by the cryptic poem, believing it is a clue to some nefarious doings of his brother’s. Sure enough, once they reach the Maine estate, they start matching clues they find there to the lines of the poem, but nothing seems to make sense. The Professor shows the boys the array of junk his brother had accumulated, and shows them two odd features on the property – an enormously tall monument to the Revolutionary War General Herkimer, the victor at the Battle of Oriskany, and an abandoned observatory.

Unfortunately, they begin having to deal with creepy occurrences: Peregrine’s tomb is broken in to twice, and his body is stolen, both Johnny and the Professor see a ghost that gives them cryptic messages. They later run across a nasty red-faced man who drops a collection of ivory chessmen, which seems to match a clue in Peregrine’s poem. Their attempts to get more information are foiled, but they do learn that their adversary is a madman bent on destroying the world with black magic, and he always seems to be one step ahead of them. Things come to a head when the trio returns to the mansion from a night of burgers and a movie to find the house blocked off by a magical barrier and some sort of black ritual taking place inside while comets streak through the sky overhead.

The Professor takes this as a sign to forget about collecting the inheritance and he and the boys hurriedly flee Maine to return to Duston Heights. The boys correctly guess that the Professor hasn’t given up trying to foil the evil wizard, and sneak along to help him. Once they are back in Maine, they manage to avert the impending doom with only a little bit of a deus ex machina and all ends well.

This is one of the better Johnny Dixon mysteries, equal parts mystery and gothic horror. The puzzle presented is fairly interesting, and for the most part Bellairs plays fair with the reader, with one glaring exception in which the answer to a clue is dropped in at the last minute. The horror in the novel is appropriately moody and creepy. Bellairs seems to be at his best when detailing the New England region (which is where he made his home), and as a result is able to contrast the ordinary day to day life in the sleepy little towns the stories are set in with the scary stuff that happens in his stories. It is obvious that Bellairs loved 1950s New England, and goes into a lot of detail to bring it to life for the reader. I suspect that most young readers will also love this book.

Previous book in the series: The Trolley to Yesterday
Subsequent book in the series: The Secret of the Underground Room

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  1. Sounds like an interesting read!

    1. @fredamans: I like all of the series Bellairs wrote, but my favorite is the Johnny Dixon/Professor Childermass series.