Muir's Gambit: A Spy Game Novel (The Aiken Trilogy)
by Michael Frost Beckner
Montrose Station Press

"For each of us, our entire existence was wrapped up in secrets, stealing them, keeping them, selling them, living them, killing them."

In this prequel to the Brad Pitt espionage thriller Spy Game, Beckner transports audiences back into the universe of Nathan Muir, a multifaceted CIA legend whose discourse with Russell Aiken, legal counsel to the CIA, is nothing short of two juggernauts dueling in an epic game of high-stakes chess. From the first line, “Charlie March is dead,” the author establishes a “no holds barred” tone that only continues to build toward a fever pitch as the exposure of national secrets are on the line.

Once immersed in this world of espionage and secrets, readers will quickly grasp that the line between what is true and what is a lie is blurred, often beyond recognition. When the anointed CIA hero, March, utters Nathan’s name in his final words, the CIA appoints Aiken to rid them of their Nathan Muir problem and the myriad of international secrets buried within him. As a career-long legal counsel who always aspired to be a CIA field agent, Aiken seizes the opportunity. Thus begins a cat and mouse game over drinks between Muir and Aiken.

While there are numerous intriguing aspects of the storyline, it is undoubtedly the characters, and largely their wit and intellect, that spearhead the progression of the narrative. In fact, the backstory and interconnectedness of the characters add layers upon layers of depth that make each of their actions that much more tantalizing and interesting. From Aiken’s perspective, for instance, there is a palpable level of resentment that Tom Bishop replaced him as Muir’s “go-to.” And even then, what happened to Tom Bishop? Muir sent him off to Hong Kong to run black bag operations, seemingly far from all the action.

With the progression of Muir and Aiken’s conversation, it becomes increasingly obvious that both are tormented souls, holding onto secrets that are eroding their humanity and shattering any semblance of peace of mind. Interestingly, Beckner’s research is not just centered on GLADIO, the CIA and NATO campaign that would activate sleeper cells if the USSR invaded Europe post World War II, but it is also a lesson on understanding what makes a human tick. Perhaps no portion of the piece demonstrates this more seamlessly than Aiken’s journey at the “Farm,” a CIA simulated capture environment training individuals not to break when captured. Painted in harrowing detail, this scene suggests that the audience conjure the possibility of an enemy uncovering their greatest weakness, one not connected to national secrets but rather the very essence of what makes one human. For Aiken, it was Sinatra’s records because they reminded him of his dad and claustrophobia. Seeing him challenge himself is a testament to human resolve in the direst circumstances.

Whether the platform is one of love, war, or merely survival, each of the characters shows their true colors in grandiose fashion, leaving a trail of personal heartbreak or, as was the case for March, reckless abandon for his covert assets, unflinchingly leading them to death’s door if needed. From Muir’s Floridian jungle to the KGB’s love for potato juice, Beckner consistently demonstrates a knack for taking high-stakes situations and storylines and adding an array of dimensions that deliver a more intimate connection to the reader. Against the backdrop of espionage, however, are raw human emotions—love, grief, jealousy, and worst of all, regret. Switching between the past and present, readers get a glimpse behind the veil of who Charlie March was, who Russel Aiken is, and how Nathan Muir is essentially the bridge to both of them. In a novel where nothing is as it seems, readers will ultimately relish the edge-of-your-seat action but will appreciate even more the candid, almost therapy-like conversations between Nathan and Aiken, even if these are the epitome of gamesmanship and are shrouded in lies and secrecy.

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