David Szalay's anti-hero, Aleksandr, is a relic of the Communist revolution, who grew to manhood at the beginning of Stalin's regime when betrayal and execution were the order of the day. Now, in 1972, while Bobby Fischer robs his Soviet opponent, Boris Spassky, of the world chess championship, and the Munich Olympics endure bloodshed and terrorist attack, Aleksandr is looking back over events after the Second World War, when he was sent to investigate the case of Anatoly Yudin.
Yudin had been shot in the head and mentally impaired, losing his memory and power of speech. Aleksandr wanted his doctor, Lozovsky, to release him to his care so that he could test whether the patient was pretending. Lozovsky refused. What followed is a morass of suspicion, paranoia and miscalculation; state-inspired mind games mirrored in the Fischer-Spassky chess match taking place almost 30 years later.
We also learn about Aleksandr's journalist brother, and the relationship with Lozovksy's wife that costs him his marriage. Szalay's multi-layered narrative does not make for an easy read, and his knowledge of the period is formidable, but he twists both the politics and the human drama into an intelligent, commanding shape that draws us irresistibly on.