Lifestyle Reader's Edge the March 2024 issue

Times Change, Crime Remains

A review of Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner
By Scott Naugle Posted on March 1, 2024

Written for various monthly magazines through the 1930s and 1940s, these six stories are classic whodunnits set in the Deep South in the early 20th century. Edited by John Duvall based on the original manuscripts as penned by Faulkner, removing many of the stylistic and space considerations that were common to both pulp and highbrow magazines of the time, they can be read as the author intended.

Knight’s Gambit

By William Faulkner, edited by John Duvall

University Press of Mississippi


Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897. He attended the University of Mississippi but dropped out after three semesters. Faulkner came from a family of businessmen, but he had no interest in following that path; as he stated at the time, “Money (is) a contemptible thing to work for.” Instead, he began to write poetry and published a collection, The Marble Faun, in 1924. Over the next four decades he wrote several classic novels, As I Lay Dying, Light in August and The Sound and The Fury among them, while winning two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes (one posthumously), and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lived hard, worked hard, womanized hard (reportedly driving his wife Estelle to the bottle), drank hard and died in 1962 after falling from his horse and suffering a heart attack.

The first short story in the Knight’s Gambit collection is “Smoke,” published in the prestigious Harper’s magazine in 1932. We are presented with two murders. The first victim, Anselm Holland, came to town, married well and subsequently managed a large inherited plantation. His wife died young and left him with twin sons, Anselm and Virginius, neither of whom he treated well and who left home as soon as they could. Eventually, the elder Anselm “was found dead, his foot fast in the stirrup of the saddled horse which he rode, and his body badly broken where the horse had apparently dragged him through a rail fence.”

Plot is always rooted in character. No one creates characters like Faulkner.

There are questions about Anselm’s will regarding the rightful heir to the plantation. The judge set to preside over the matter is soon found “leaning a little back in his chair, quite comfortable. His eyes were open, and he had been shot once neatly through the bridge of the nose so that he appeared to have three eyes set in a row.” What follows is a classic courtroom drama masterminded by county attorney Gavin Stevens, the protagonist of the Knight’s Gambit stories. My bet is that you will compare Stevens to Perry Mason but with a southern drawl.

Faulkner, sly and wise, plays with preconceived assumptions about the circumstances and characters, who knows what and when, and how we fool ourselves into believing a town’s collective gossip, “if we had only not been so busy believing what we discover later we had taken for the truth for no other reason than we happened to be believing it at the moment.”  

The Complexity of Faulkner

I know that Faulkner can be a difficult read but not in this collection of detective stories. Focus on the individual elements that comprise the ambience of the story: the memorable characters, their rich dialect, the foibles of their reasoning leading them into trouble, and the underlying canvas of southernness.

Plot is always rooted in character. No one creates characters like Faulkner. Furthermore, dialogue is how we know a character. Dialogue is both what a character says and does not say. Two characters who do not like one another or have strongly opposing interests, and with all their might would prefer to avoid direct contact, are forced to interact.

As the tension builds in the trial in “Smoke,” Faulkner dials up the palpable pressure not by long, effusive descriptions of scenery but rather by short, tight exchanges between characters and the nuances of their facial and physical reactions. Take this exchange between Stevens and one of the twins during the penultimate courtroom scene: “‘Prove what, Virge?’ Stevens said. Again they looked at each other, quiet, hard, like two boxers. Not swordsmen, but boxers; or at least with pistols.” If the author gets a character’s tone and inflection right, that character becomes believable, and his actions properly drive the plot.

The right characters, who have been allowed to act true to themselves, set the reader up for a great story, one premised on this basic rule: the best fiction is about watching people suffer. And the characters in this book do suffer.

The longest tale of the collection, “Knight’s Gambit,” weaves together many storylines about a murder that is prevented from happening. It has bootlegging, excessive wealth, an old-style plantation and home plowed under and rebuilt with all the modern conveniences of the 1930s, which can be read as modernity’s disregard for the past and its traditions; a romantic angle in which Gavin Stevens reunites with a former girlfriend; and a man, Max Harriss, who is determined to run off his wealthy widowed mother’s new suitor, the mysterious Argentine calvary officer, Captain Sebastian Gualdres. The characters are driven by despair, jealousy, avarice and social position.

Max is consumed with foiling the marriage of the “fortune-hunting” Captain Gualdres to his mother but then cannot prevent him from marrying his smitten and lovesick sister. Early in the story, the tension is set when Max brings his sister to the county attorney’s home late at night: “Then he saw that the boy held his sister, not by the arm or elbow, but by the forearm above the wrist like in the old lithographs of the policeman with his cringing captive.” He had coached his sister to join in his demand that Gualdres be deported with a “warning” that there would otherwise be violence ahead. While there are intrigues and multiple subplots, ultimately and cleverly, the murder of Gualdres by Max is thwarted.

Almost any of Faulkner’s novels or short stories can be dissected to reveal themes that reflect broad changes that were drastically altering the South: the disappearance of an agrarian society, the growing prominence of industrialism, the increasing presence of foreigners or immigrants, the omnipresent influence of the Yankee and the Yankee dollar, and a culture still weighed down by defeat on the battlefield. Those are certainly themes of this collection, as illustrated by plantation homes that are torn down and replaced with “electrified” residences in the titular story, and Faulkner’s writing on race is undeniably of its time and place in the early to mid-20th century.

While many of the historical themes interwoven in Faulkner’s stories appear prescient, his fellow citizens found them hard to swallow. He was never popular in Mississippi during his life. Begrudgingly at his death, his fellow citizens did feel a remembrance was appropriate. On Saturday, July 7, 1962, the day after he died, the shopkeepers in Oxford, Mississippi, his hometown, placed notices in their store windows that proclaimed: IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM FAULKNER, THIS BUSINESS WILL BE CLOSED FROM 2:00 TO 2:15 TODAY. 

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