cover image Back Channel

Back Channel

Stephen L. Carter. Knopf, $27.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-385-34960-4

In the prologue of Carter’s intriguing what-if thriller, Margo Jensen, a bright 19-year-old Cornell student, meets privately in Washington, D.C., with President Kennedy, who is trying to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis without triggering nuclear war. Earlier that fall, Margo became involved in a covert intelligence operation through a brilliant Cornell professor of hers, Lorenz Niemeyer, who’s an expert on Conflict Theory. Margo learns that a Russian chess champion, Vasily Smyslov, has alerted the U.S. to a surprise Soviet move in Cuba. The only way to get more details from Smyslov is to send an American counterpart, Bobby Fischer, to Russia to sound him out, and Fischer will only go if Margo, whom he considers to be a good-luck charm, accompanies him. Carter (The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln) makes this audacious premise convincing and manages to build suspense around a historical event with a known outcome. Author tour. (Aug.)