At first glance, it is easy to mistake what Vance Bourjaily is doing. Take a casual look at his hero, Chink Peters, and you may be inclined to dimiss him as one more in a long line of stepsons of James Bond who have been proliferating in American publishing under such names as "The Destroyer," "The Avenger," or "The Penetrator," and whose adventures in series of novels have gone up to 30 titles or more.
Peters is "Der Fleischwulf" ("The Meatgrinder"), a pioneer of dirty tricks during World War II, a murder machine honed to an incredibly sharp edge of relentless skill, who has killed more people than he cares to remember (presumably in a good cause and has long since retired in total disillusion. Now 50ish, he is devoting his time to other interests (horses, literature and languages, memories of women in his past and shell-shocked musings about the possibility of women in his future) when the murder of two former friends, a continent away, snaps him back into action.
As usual, when he is sent into action, Chink is sent by Wally Diefenbach, who was a major in charge of his World War II activities, has since become the ambassdor to the United Nations, and in between was running intelligence activities with Chink as the chief operative. Wally can be charming in a manipulative sort of way, and in a moment of frankness he once described his relationship with Chink: "The devious mind and the steady hand, like coach and quarterback, we operate out of a balance of mutual disdain and grudging dependence."
When Chink finally had quit "the agency" to raise horses in Virginia, he found that Wally had bought the adjoining estate. In the course of time, Wally also took away his wife and tried every trick he could devise to get Chink's favorite horse. To get away from Wally and pressures and memories, Chink has dropped out of life as he did from the agency; as the novel opens, he is taking a shipment of horses to Australia by slow boat. And when a double murder brings him back into action, it is the murder of Wally's two daughters, whom Chink has not seen for 10 years.
Underneath its structure as a novel of mystery and suspense, "A Game Men Play" turns out to be a novel about the destructive interaction of two men's lives. Bourjaily indulges himself in a very leisurely pace as he sketches in the background for the novel's central action. The interlocking lives of Chink and Wally are seen in a series of flashbacks, spanning years and continents, as Chink slowly travels across the Pacific, shunning human company much of the time and indulging his social instincts by talking to the horses. This background occupies more than half the book, with the result that, when the central action finally begins in New York, the pages sometimes seem a bit crowded and some of the secondary human characters are less clearly characterized than the horses.
In the second half -- again in the guise of mystery and suspense -- "A Game Men Play" acquires some of the intricacy and intensity of a Victorian novel: themes of marraige and family, and particularly the moralizing theme of destiny's long-workedout revenge on an evil man, mingle with the motifs of ocnspiracy and terrorism that are the ostensible subject.
The result is intriguing but not completely satisfying -- partly because the second part is so compressed in comparison to the first and partly because the book turns out to be quite different from what it had orginally seemed. But the thoughtful readers, which is the kind this novel should attract, may find it awkward complaining that the author has given more than was bargained for.
"A Game Men Play" was more enjoyable on the second reading than on the first -- a point worth noting in these days of inflated book prices, and a quality already in such earlier works of Bourjaily as the intricately encyclopedic "Now Playing at Canterbury."