cover image Zugzwang


Ronan Bennett, . . Bloomsbury, $24.95 (273pp) ISBN 978-1-59691-253-3

Roiling with class tensions and rife with danger, St. Petersburg during the twilight of the last czar serves as the chessboard on which Irish author Bennett (The Catastrophist ) stages this heady historical thriller. The game begins with a bang: the murder of prominent newspaper editor O.V. Gulko in March 1914, just weeks before the city hosts a glittering international chess tournament. (Zugzwang refers to a situation in which a player can make only moves that worsen his position.) Then there’s a second slaying. Despite plenty of the usual suspects—Bolsheviks, pro-German reactionaries, Polish nationalists—the police start grilling respected psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann and his 18-year-old daughter. The widower’s protestations of innocence cut little ice with his chief inquisitor, Insp. Mintimer Lychev, a mysterious sort who happens to share Spethmann’s chess enthusiasm. Dr. Spethmann’s only hope: using his analytic skills to crack the case. As he races the clock, he and Lychev become caught up in a high-stakes battle of wits. The plot packs more than enough surprises to keep any suspense junkie sated. (Nov.)