Predictably, we begin with:
This pretty little Satan of a man wears his preferences the way he wears his guns—outside his pants, for all the honest world to feel. An unrepentant man-killer in both senses of the phrase, he’s both known since damn early on that ladies ain’t his meat and he ain’t theirs, and consistently sneered at the dangers of living life the way he chooses to. Practical to a fault, Chess is also completely apolitical; he saw the War Between States mainly as a double chance for travel and recreation, even while still serving as a Private in the Confederate Army.
Born in San Francisco, a literal son-of-a-bitch straight out of the Barbary Coast’s deepest stew-pits, Chess spent the first ten to twelve years of his life like any other whore-get—his days were lost in alternately avoiding his Ma, “English” Oona, and helping her feed her opium addiction, his nights robbing tricks or turning them. It took some time to breed what lingering affection he still had for her out of himself, but it certainly helped when she figured out where his true interests lay, and sold him a time or two to cover her debts.
The real moment of decision, however, came after Chess cut the throat of a Pinkerton who was beating him for taking his billfold, stole his first gun from the corpse, and started practising with it. Soon, he discovered that size meant nothing when adjusted against skill with weaponry, especially if you were always willing to shoot fast, shoot first, and shoot to kill—so he signed up with Lieutenant Saul Mobley’s Irregulars and started putting that personal philosophy to work, to deadly effect.
Chess made few friends in the army, though he did gain at least a few admirers (Kees Hosteen included) based on his willingness to swap blow-jobs for extra bullets. Unluckily for everyone around him, however, it was under the Lieut’s command that he eventually met “Reverend” Asher Rook…and the rest is history.
Just as the Hexslinger Series in general takes a good portion of its inspiration from James Mangold’s 2007 3:10 to Yuma remake, I’ve never made much secret of the fact that whenever I think of Chess, the physical template I most often see is that of Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in that same movie, antihero Ben Wade (Russell Crowe)’s ambiguously gay sidekick. Like Chess, Charlie’s young, mean, odd-eyed, bearded, given to sartorial flourish, served in the War, wears his guns cavalry-style, and will do almost anything for his beloved “boss”. However, I do like to think there are enough points of difference to make Chess his own man, coincidental initials aside.
Here’s a representative sampling of Foster, as Charlie and otherwise:
You’ll note that while his eyes do occasionally look green in some shots, the whole “red-haired” thing is me. And Chess.;)
Finally: Chess’s first name derives from the county of Cheshire, in Britain, which is where his mother thought her mother originally came from. He doesn’t know this, however, having never asked her. Which brings us, hopefully less predictably, to the second part of the Pargeter equation—
“English” Oona Pargeter
Oona’s one of those difficult characters, a classic reduction—ie: “your Mom’s a whore!” “Sure is. So?” We don’t know her for very long in A Book of Tongues, and meet her at the very end of her descent into addiction and bitterness, but I’m hoping to do better with her in A Rope of Thorns. She’s a small, red-haired woman with a strong Cockney accent, and the things Chess doesn’t know about her will always make for make a far longer list than those he does.
Oona’s first name means “famine”, and is Irish in origin. Her last name means, roughly, “plasterer”. It’s Norman French. I have this strong sense that Oona’s father’s family may have originally been Jewish, and adopted the name as a way of passing for Christian during the reign of Henry II. One way or another, however, she was born into crime and poverty in the area of London then known as Seven Dials.
Once most of the rest of her family had been Transported, clapped in gaol or hanged, Oona traveled to America as an indentured servant at age ten, was seduced and turned out by age twelve, and had become a gaiety-hall gal/prostitute by age fourteen, working in dives like San Francisco’s Bella Union.
From her point of view, pregnancy with Chess ruined her “chances” of ever graduating from penny-a-dance whore to kept girl, as well as leaving her physically debilitated—pelvis cracked, parts torn, with almost no time off to heal between “engagements”. She suffered from childbed fever, lost her complexion and developed her opium habit. From there, it was a slowish yet inevitable road to the “hospital” under Selina Ah Toy’s.
Sharp-tongued and not unintelligent but woefully undereducated, Oona bequeathed Chess her anger, her stubbornness, her perverse brand of pride, and a world-view which holds that all men are tricks, all women whores, and while most people lie about it to themselves, you’re a fool to do the same—get the money up front, give nothing for nothing. Love’s a mug’s game. Sure, she was more than willing to beat Chess and pimp him out to strangers for as long as he’d let her get away with it, but on some level she always knew there’d come a time when he’d turn against her—and part of her, the part for whom self-destruction had become the only victory left to her, saw that inevitable betrayal as something to be celebrated: Good for you, ya flamin’ molly. Yer free now.
While Oona may have sometimes claimed what she wanted—or considered her due, more like—from Chess was his support, I think his “success” as an outlaw pleased her far more. It’s like his revenge on the world was hers.
Physical template: Emily Watson when younger, Katrin Cartlidge when older. Freakishly, here's a pic of them both (from Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves):