A Gentleman’s Game – Greg Rucka

3 out of 5

A terrorist bombing in the London subways sends minder Tara Chace to Saudi Arabia on special op.  Because this is being fictionalized for us, and because it’s Queen & Country, we’re well expecting something to go wrong.  …But it doesn’t.  The op goes very right, and Tara returns home.

For the first 2/3rds to 3/4ths of A Gentleman’s Game, we’re drawn along the path to this op, and its success, and because Greg is saving the real dramas for the final portion of the book – which is intense, and goddamned fantastic, and breathtaking – there’s an oddly lacking sense of urgency and danger to it.  The initial attack sets things off to a tizzy, of course, and there’s the deeply satisfying behind-the-curtain vile political gladhanding Greg gives us via D-Ops Paul Crocker’s attempted deflections of an outright “response” to the attack, without at least doing some intel first, and then nonetheless stymied by a government that just wants to give the public a “win.”

However, this is intercut with scenes of Sinan, seemingly far away – physically and even-twise – from the goingson in London; Sinan is a white man converted to radical Islam, and trying to work his way toward the fight, and such is the slowburn nature of the first chunk of the book that we seem to spend more time with him than we do with Chace, or any of our minders.  Some of this makes for an interesting counterpoint – allowed in to a potential terrorist’s mindset, and a converted American no less, and giving voice to his contempt for his homeland that shades his role beyond cartoon villainy.  However, we know what side we’re on here, and what side Greg’s on, and this isn’t an attempt to humanize Sinan: he’s always, 100%, committed to gunning down his enemies, and anyone not of his religion is his enemy.  His origins don’t end up playing much of a role because it’s not really his story – it ends up just feeling like an excuse so we can “hear” his thoughts from a white American point of view.  Given how much time we spend with him, it makes the first 150ish pages rather plodding, unfortunately, and even though we get a ton of energy back in the conclusion, on retrospect, this energy distracts from the confirmation that it really wasn’t his story, even in part.

But: that conclusion.  When Tara returns from the op, that’s when things go wrong.  That’s when the other shoe drops on all the political shenanigans, and everyone jumps into action with double- and triple-dealings, and it suddenly feels like we can’t be sure who’s going to make it out alive.  I’m rereading this book after many years, and there was one scene from it I remembered incredibly vividly; I think it’s telling that it’s from this concluding portion, and not much else from the book stuck.

As a continuation to the Q&C series, this is a necessary read.  As a standalone read, it’s really missing Greg’s usual ace sense of space and placement, seemingly substituted by a rather deep dive into post-9/11 politics, which is fascinating, except it’s incredibly slowed down by cutaways to the fomenting terrorist operation (as represented by Sinan), presented in a fashion that’s more distracting than compelling.  Once you get to the final section of the book, that slow intro is forgotten – the last fifty pages are a blur of perfect thriller writing.  However, standing back from the experience as a whole, the book is a fractured read, and not as tight as some of Greg’s other thrillers.