In Muir’s Gambit, Michael Frost Beckner, screenwriter of the movie Spy Game (2002), returns to the murky world of Cold War espionage and the characters he introduced in the Tony Scott film starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
The story starts in the ‘90s with the assassination of a CIA legend who, with his dying breath, seemingly implicates CIA spymaster Nathan Muir in his murder. Seeing an opportunity to rid the agency of Muir and the secrets and lies the old-school intelligence officer is privy to, the CIA deputy director enlists Muir’s former protégé, embittered CIA lawyer Russell Aiken, to prise a confession from him.
Aiken, harboring a grudge against Muir for discarding him in favor of field-agent Tom Bishop, sets about bringing Muir down. The subsequent cat-and-mouse examination is anything but straightforward.
Spanning four decades of covert CIA activities and historical events, Muir’s Gambit is a politically astute, morally ambiguous, impeccably researched espionage thriller brimming with deception. However, unlike spy-thrillers that glamorize espionage with big action scenes and wildly illogical gadgetry, this is a scathing condemnation of tradecraft and its moral and psychological cost.
Russell, the novel’s sardonic, alcoholic narrator, is a bleakly funny, desperate character, worlds away from the James Bond super-spy standard. Muir, meanwhile, is a scenery-munching Machiavelli, whose manipulative philosophizing and affinity for intrigue recall John Le Carré’s George Smiley. And Tom Bishop is probably the closest thing to a hero, despite eventually becoming disillusioned.
The dialogue is excellent, especially as Aiken seeks to leverage a confession from Muir, only to find himself caught up in Muir’s machinations. The prose-style is lean and conversational, keeping readers engaged even when the politics are complex and the narrative convoluted.
While the story is initially disorienting as it zips backwards and forwards in time, this approach proves rewarding as the plot elements bind, culminating in a delightful conclusion.
Overall, Muir’s Gambit is a brilliant opening salvo in the author’s Aiken trilogy. Espionage fans looking for an alternative to standardized spy-thriller tropes will find plenty to entertain them in this satisfyingly offbeat offering.