Grandmaster was published in 1984. It won an Edgar Award for best paperback original in 1985, and it is the first, by my count, of seven novels co-written and published as by Warren Murphy and Molly Cochran. It is both familiar and fresh to readers of Mr. Murphy’s long running series, The Destroyer. The familiarity is its Eastern mysticism, and the fresh is its less satirical and more hard-bitten tone.
Justin Gilead is nearly an orphan. His mother died before he was three, and his father—
“a novelist known worldwide by the single name Leviathan, which graced a stream of flashy if embarrassingly illiterate best-sellers”
—promptly unloaded the child to a succession of aunts, uncles, and anyone else who would look after him. An uncle encouraged Justin to play chess, which he did, and very well, but he is more than just a chess prodigy. He is mystical; the reincarnated Patanjali of Rashimpur; The Wearer of the Blue Hat. The fantasy element is remarkably complicated, in a good way, and important to the novel. It is played out in a straight forward cold war espionage with a slash of good an evil.
Grandmaster, when it was released, was a wholly original novel, and still is. It is a mixture of the heroic and cold war machinations. It is larger than life, but reasonable with its grandiosity; Justin Gilead is greater than a simple man, but less than an outright hero. He has failed his destiny and is motivated by revenge. The espionage element is the playground for the story, and while a cold war novel, its focus, and what makes it work, is the thematic good versus evil. The good isn’t the United States, and the evil isn’t the Soviet Union. It is much more personal, and much more interesting for it.
Wonderfully (because it made me laugh), Justin Gilead’s father—at least in name—resembles the bestselling author Trevanian. A man Warren Murphy likely knew since he wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Trevanian’s novel The Eiger Sanction. And Mr. Murphy’s assessment is less than fawning—see the quote above.