The first time we meet grandmaster Arden Wylie, he looks a bit like Victor Korchnoi in game nine of his latest world championship chess match: "He was a pawn down already; the pawn at Q4 was isolated, probably indefensible . . . his entire position was cramped . . . he would be left with a lost endgame." He does what any world-class chess player would do in such a situation; he stops playing the position and begins playing psychology, upsets his opponent with a ridiculous proposal of a draw and tricks him into a blunder. I doubt that novelist John Griffiths knows the CIA and KGB from the inside, as his story would indicate, but he has obviously been to a chess tournament or two.
Wylie is an improbable sort of hero for an espionage suspense story. For one thing, he is too conspicuous to be a good undercover agent; a grandmaster is one mind out of considerably more than a million, and those who are interested in the curious art of chess tend to keep an eye on them. In addition, he is anything but a team player. He is a victim of what we might call the Bobby Fischer syndrome, the feeling that all life is a contest and the lineup is him against the whole world; the subconscious assumption that other humans are actually odd-shaped pieces of wood to be manipulated for his own benefit. He is not a particularly attractive character; expert chess players seldom are when they are doing their specialized thing, which is a symbolic form of ritual murder.
But he is fascinating (at least to those who have developed a taste for intellectual intricacies with a touch of venom), and he is portrayed with photographic precision. "The Memory Man," after a promising beginning, drifts into a rather contrived plot, but Griffiths writes well and he creates a few vivid, memorable characters.
Besides Wylie, the most vivid is Alexei Grigorovich Ivkov, a Russian physicist who has made a major discovery that will revolutionize anti-missile defense and probably encourage his country to go to war. When Ivkov, conscience-stricken, decides to share his secret with the United States, the CIA has no suitable agent in Moscow to collect the information. Wylie is not a spy, but he is in Moscow at an international tournament and he seems eminently qualified for the assignment: highly intelligent, not particularly scrupulous and gifted with a photographic memory, even for things that are unintelligible, like laser technology.
Still, there is something amiss. A CIA official, looking at his picture and pondering whether to ask for his help, searches for clues: "A posed portrait for the cover of Chess Life showed Wylie on his favorite battleground, leaning back in his chair waiting for an opponent to make his move. A long, wolfish face stared at the camera, the eyes sharp and watchful, the lips twisting into a smile both humorous and faintly insolent. There was a touch of the maverick in that face . . . something almost provocatively self-possessed. I am who I am, it seemed to say, and if you don't like it, you can do the other thing."
This is a prophetic note. Having met Ivkov in Gorky Park and memorized their conversation, Wylie double-crosses the CIA, runs off and tries to increase the stakes -- then his memory lapses and he finds himself pursued by both the CIA and the KGB, surviving on pure bluff and luck. At this point, the story becomes just another suspense thriller with fairly standard elements that are well done but seem thrown in because the genre requires them: a rather factitious love interest, a train scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, a border-crossing (in the mountains, naturally, and at night) -- the standard material that an aspiring author uses to attract a possible movie contract.
But when he is writing about something that really interests him -- the ambiance of a chess tournament, the twists of character in spymasters and grandmasters, the anxiety and ultimate disintegration of poor Ivkov -- Griffiths raises his story above routine. Besides the standard plot complications, a chess adept may occasionally see in his story some of the game's basic tactical motifs -- here a pin, there a fork or a double attack. Some of this may be fanciful, but the plot's solution is explicitly modeled on a highly specialized type of chess problem: the sui-mate or king sacrifice. It is elaborately contrived, as chess problems tend to be, but it is the sort of thing that might have occurred to a man like Wylie, and it is worked out with a pleasing intricacy.
"The Memory Man" should interest chess addicts more than most novels about spies, and espionage fans more than most novels about chess. Those who have a taste for both will be very happy indeed.