Why would a reclusive chess master be at the heart of a plot to kill the Tsar? That’s just one of the puzzles in this taut, intricate thriller set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the fifth novel from the Northern Irish Bennett (Havoc, in Its Third Year, 2004, etc.).
It’s March 1914, and St. Petersburg is in ferment. Pro-German and pro-French factions jockey for power as war looms; terrorists and revolutionaries are hard at work; Jews are being scapegoated. Yet our narrator, Dr. Otto Spethmann, born a Jew but not raised as one, remains serenely nonpolitical. A middle-aged widower, he lives with his daughter Catherine, a willful university student who he loves dearly. Otto is a respected psychoanalyst with some celebrity patients: Avrom Rozental, a Polish Jew favored to win the upcoming chess tournament; Anna Ziatdinov, a beautiful socialite, daughter of the reactionary industrialist Zinnurov; and Gregory Petrov, Bolshevik leader (Lenin is in exile). Otto is forced to acknowledge political strife by a visit from a police inspector, Lychev, who suspects Otto is linked to a plot to kill the Tsar. The idea is preposterous, but it turns out that Catherine has indeed been consorting with a would-be terrorist, now murdered. Otto’s serenity is further disturbed when armed intruders ransack his office for Rozental’s file. Bennett deftly splices the patients’ case histories with his fast-moving plot. Otto counsels the deeply disturbed Rozental not to play in the tournament, advice which will have explosive repercussions. He pinpoints the source of Anna’s trauma even as they become lovers and he runs afoul of her powerful father. Petrov, however, confident in public but a soul in torment in Otto’s study, remains an enigma. Otto is forced to make difficult moves in this human chess game, even as he plays an actual match with his famous violinist friend Kopelzon (in a treat for chess lovers, there are board-by-board reproductions of each move). A series of stunning surprises ends with Otto himself executing the key conspirator.
A hugely enjoyable, brilliant high-wire act.