While enamoured to neither Bolsheviks nor spies this is the type of fiction I enjoy without getting too excited by it. Steady throughout, it isn’t Stieg Larsson stuff but then few works of fiction are. Turning its pages induces a mild sensation of entering a room already furnished and decorated by the novelist Eric Ambler. Scenes from Epitaph for a Spy were the flashbacks that peppered my reading of Zugzwang.

There is no great pace to the book and it never reaches a climax. Ronan Bennett is a controlled writer and it is satisfying to watch a novelist harness his work rather than allowing it to run away, pulling him behind in its train as has happened to Tom Rob Smith in his Lev Demidov triology. Like the chess game Zugzwang is built around, the plot moves slowly and methodically. The tale sings but never reaches the high note. The story is more like cricket than soccer, played out rather than being decided by a stunning goal in the final seconds. There is no dramatic outcome preceded by the preparatory crescendo. Like a Leonard Cohen song that makes no attempt to hit the high note, the content is not impaired, the music in no way deficient.

The location is St Petersburg in 1914, a city better described as a boiling pot rather than a melting one, even though with the benefit of hindsight we now know that the melt down of the old Tzarist Russia was  a mere three years away.

As usual with revolution there were agents and double agents. A close observer of the North, Bennett would understand just how extensive penetration by state intelligence agencies can be and how the ground is laid by them to produce zugzwang and eventually checkmate: where the point is reached when the king of the opposition is revealed as a mere pawn in the wider game even if he deludes himself that he is the most important piece on the board. 

Dr Otto Spethmann is a psychoanalyst whose work is disturbed by an overly officious police officer investigating murder and making inquiries about one of his patients. There are policemen and ‘terrorists’, both of whom routinely make incursions and infringements. There are also Bolsheviks and betrayers, lovers and haters, but the reader is deliberately never allowed to stand at ease with the authenticity of the roles the characters assume.  Secrecy will always breed spies and sellers of secrets in a world where things are never quite what they seem.

The air is thick with the choking smoke of political violence. It is the backdrop against which the plot and violence of the novel are placed. St Petersburg is a hotbed of sedition and suspicion. In this city Spethmann, a widower whose sense of amour has not yet deadened, loves his daughter Catherine but like many fathers is perplexed by her strong will and sense of independence and it doesn’t help when she queries his choice of partner, even though he, with good reason, holds reservations about her own.

The main sex scene added nothing to the novel. Even for the reader in need of titillation it lacked the oomph of, say, Ken Follet’s erotic construction in the Eye of the Needle. It was superfluous and undermined the flow of the narrative by rupturing one line of suspense that could have lingered to the last page. 

Avrom Rozental is the brilliant Jewish chess player who continuously swats at the imaginary fly that dogs him. But his confidence has gone and his game lacks verve in proportion to his strategy suffering depth deprivation. The complexity of chess thickens the ambience in which the predicament of zugzwang confronts Spethmann no matter how he moves or turns. His position just fails to get better and ‘mate’ is a call that never seems far away.

And when it happens the queen might be more a target than the king.

Ronan Bennett, Zugswang. Bloomsbury. ISBN 0747587299


  1. Anthony; would I need to understand cricket or chess to read this?

    I've recently read Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Like you I loved the Steig Larsson books and since reading them havent really found any novels of that calibre.

    Based loosely on a real serial killer in Stalin's Russia Child 44
    doesnt top any of Larssons but it was a great read all the same with a strange wee twist. Thoroughly enjoyed it, would highly recommend.

  2. Belfast Bookworm,

    not really, apart from knowing that they can be long and slow and chess in particular complex. While a chess tournament is a major part of the story and a few moves are played out as the novel snakes along, knowing nothing about the game would not be a hindrance to reading the book.

    Child 44 was a considerably better read than what followed. I enjoyed it too but not as much as I like Larsson. Unlike his they don't reach new heights each novel. I loved the Larsson triology. Carrie and me did the tour in Stockholm!

    You could try Lisa Marklund. I enjoyed her writing. The Scandanavians really seem to have this niche cornered.

  3. I'll try the Marklund one soon.

    Amazon kindly recommended 'a book I might like' (based on my previous kindle purchase) called Eye of the Red Tsar. Nowhere near as good as Child 44 but readable all the same.

    I was in Stockholm many years ago, before the world had heard of Larsson. Its a beautiful city and I'd love to go back. Next time I'll do the Larrson tour.

    The trilogy of films were shown over Christmas and they were great - the original Swedish versions with subtitles. I've heard Daniel Craig plays a blinder though in the English film.

  4. I loved the films too. But like The Killing the Scandanavian ones are in a class of their own. I tried to watch the US version of The Killing and switched off after Episode 1. Have you watched it yet? The best crime series I have ever watched.

  5. I haven't watched it - I haven't even heard of it before. Is it like those CSI programmes everyone talks about? I've seen one or two episodes of that but it didn't grip me enough to keep me watching.

    There's very little I watch on TV - mainly because most of it is crap, but like books if someone recommends something to me I'd look out for it.

    I loved the Wire and Band if Brothers but I'd say they were the last shows I followed religiously.

  6. It is not like CSI. I have watched that a few times and it is ok but not what would hold my interest over a long period. It is a 20 part series based on one killing. The plot is brilliant, the twists mouth opening, and the suspense gripping. The atmosphere is dark and the characters brooding. It is very easy to get hooked on it. I got the DVD as a present last year for my sister and she told me she would rush home from work to settle down in front of it.

    I love Scandanavian crime fiction. It just clicked with me when reading Larsson, whereas Carrie had been pressing me to read it for a long time. It was only after Mick Hall recommended Larsson on the Quill that I picked up the one Carrie had given me.

    If you try The Killing I hope you enjoy it. I also have the book but haven't got to read it yet.

  7. AM.....If you are Swedish/Scandinavian crime addict have you ever tried the series of Martin Beck novels first written in the 1970's but now being reissued? By authors Sjowall and Wahloo they are brilliant. There are 10 in the Martin beck series--the best of which..in my opinion.. is The Laughing Policeman.

  8. Stephen,

    we will go on the hunt. Thanks for this. It is Lisa Marklund at the minute and then we got three Danish from a friend last week. It reminds me so much of John McGuffin before he died, telling Eamonn McCann that there are so many good books to be read and still there's bastards writing more.

  9. Pret a Manger bans Virgin Mary crisps! God know what they tasted like!...do you know that anal sex is still illegal in Iceland ..not sure if its the same in ASDA

  10. Belfast Bookworm,

    Try Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Brilliant. As good as Stieg Larsson. Just finished it. Am reading Headhunter by Jo Nesbo at the minute – saw the film adaptation last year.
    I will read Agent 6 when I get a chance but didn’t think the Secret Speech matched Child 44.

  11. Will do, cheers. I just downloaded Agent 6 the the kindle but it'll be a while before I get to it as I'm reading The Child Thief by Dan Smith - it looks promising.

    I've read The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, brilliant book. It's part of a seres of Harry Hole books and not the first one but I didn't know this when I picked it up. Still, you can read it without starting at the beginning - like you can with Larsson's.

    I also just read a book called 'the psychopath test' on kindle by a journalist called John Ronson. Very funny - only thing is you kind of find yourself analysing everyone you know to see if they fit the psychopath profile.

    I've already profiled half the posters on TPQ and you'll be pleased to know that only half of them fit the bill!!

  12. BB,

    we have all of Nesbo's here so I will get to read them at some point. What do you think of Kindle? I find it great.

  13. Love it. Take it everywhere. Absolutely wouldn't be without one now.

    I refused to use it for about 6 months when I was first given it though, then spent the first few week licking my thumb and forefinger when reading it, couldn't get out of the paper habit.

    Now when I read paper books I look for the switch! No pleasing me.

  14. I have a thing like Kindle called Kobo but apart from the books already on it when I tried to download Cruel Britannia all I got was the front cover thank fuck this puter saved the rest,, sort of put me of.really like the idea would be great on a riverbank..

  15. Marty; I just found out recently that you actually don't need a kindle to buy kindle books as there's a kindle app.

    If you've an iPad or iPhone you can put the app in that (for free) and send books straight to your device.

  16. BB,

    I don't use it as much as I would like to - more to do with the way hard copies piled up that I had to get through. But I will get back into it. It is so convenient. I got used to it from the get go.