Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett. Renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Spethmann has an ecletic, and dangerous, list of clients. And in 1914 Russia, it’s usually best to maintain a low profile as the city of St. Petersburg is rife with political intrigue and violence. Spethmann’s knowledge of his patients’ secrets attracts the attention of the authorities and he soon finds himself being manipulated by each side in the ongoing conflict: the Okhrana secret agency, the Bolshevik party spies, and the local police. As alluded to in by the book’s title, every move the doctor makes only puts his daughter and himself in deeper jeopardy, but his unfaltering faith in his profession’s belief that unearthing and revealing the truth will lead to freedom gives him hope that an escape is possible.

Bennett’s book is another in a long list of stories set prior to or during the last days of the Tsarist regime that I have enjoyed the last couple of years. This setting has proven quite fertile for mystery writers who can capture the vast and hard landscapes, the suffering of the general populace and the complexities of the network of groups trying to maintain power or capture it by force. Bennett does not limit himself to his main character, but also does an admirable job of fully developing all the pieces in this real-time chess match, especially those who are maneuvering Spethmann directly.


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