Master of the Game is the kind of trashy supermarket checkout line novel that is stuffed with awful members of the uber-rich doing terrible things to one another and hatching elaborate revenge schemes because, what else do they have to do all day? It’s also a tremendous amount of fun, since Sidney Sheldon is himself…a master of the game. When I was growing up instead of growing old, it was nigh impossible to escape the novels of Sidney Sheldon. They were advertised everywhere in breathless hyperbole, inviting you to step into a world in which the filthy rich backstab one another, devise insanely elaborate revenge plots, and go to exquisite society galas wearing beautiful outfits. Probably the cover would have a picture of a diamond with some blood on it. Of them all, none do I recall being as hyped as Master of the Game, a sprawling epic of a family’s rise to power and the various ways in which they seek to destroy one another.
At the time, such books seemed mildly interesting, but I decided they would probably be boring to a kid like me, more interested in monsters, science fiction, and anything with a painting of an axe-swinging barbarian on the cover. As I got older and more snobbish, I dismissed them as the sort of idiotic nonsense squares read at the airport or buy at the supermarket check-out line, back when they actually sold novels at the supermarket check-out lane. I had moved on by then to more sophisticated fare like…well, monsters and science fiction and anything with a painting of an axe-swinging barbarian on the cover. But now I’m settling into middle age, and maybe that’s when Sidney Sheldon suddenly becomes interesting, even decades after his heyday. I figured, after all, that I enjoy a well-executed formulaic thriller, and stories of the vicious and elegant super-rich who feel compelled to plot against one another are more interesting to me now than they were when I was an angry young man.
Still, I’d be lying if I pretended I picked up Master of the Game with anything other than a snotty sort of ironic detachment. Oh, here I am slumming it among the trash novelists you find advertised on subways and in old issues of Cosmopolitan. How droll. I’d also be lying if I pretended that, four hours after beginning Master of the Game, I wasn’t still reading it with a giddy anticipation of seeing what crazy thing happened next. Because it turns out that Sidney Sheldon may be a formulaic writer, almost a thriller-producing machine, but he became that way because he knows his business. Master of the Game is a lot of fun. Dumb, trashy, but quickly paced, engaging, and full of awful people doing awful things against an epic backdrop that spans multiple generations and countries. Plus, someone is literally referred to in the prose as “a master of the game,” and I always love it when they work the title into the dialogue.
The story spans four generations of a family, the McGregors, who through marriage later become the Blackwells. It begins with Kate Blackwell, an elderly but still powerful and elegant woman, taking time out at her birthday party to reflect on a century or so of family history. Of course the room is full of the sorts of people you expect from these kinds of novels even if you’ve never read one: disgraced family members, murderers, captains of industry, the occasional madman. The usual. After this prologue, the book jumps back to the beginning of the family’s history, in which plucky young Scotsman Jamie McGregor leaves a life of comfortable poverty and seeks fame and fortune in South Africa amidst the great diamond rush of the 1800s. Unfortunately, Jamie is hopelessly naive and a born rube. After twice risking his life in pursuit of his dream, he strikes it fabulously rich only to be swindled out of every last diamond and dime. Destitute, defeated, and left for dead out in the desert, McGregor devotes his life to a single goal: revenge. Well, revenge and getting fabulously rich, but that’s part and parcel of the revenge scheme.
As a result of the revenge – for a hick rube who got suckered out of his claim almost immediately, Jamie sure does transform into an invincible, diabolical mastermind quickly – the McGregor dynasty is established, with their vast fortune built on diamonds, real estate, transportation and, eventually, pretty much every industry in existence. Jamie sires a son and a daughter, and it is the daughter, Kate, who takes up the story as the book transitions into the next generation. Like her father, Kate is a natural when it comes to scheming and business, but she is also even more ruthless than he was, seeing every member of her family as little more than pawns to manipulated into the place in which she thinks they belong. This causes a strain between her and her son, Anthony, who isn’t interested in the cutthroat world of multinational business and just wants to be a painter. As the years progress, however, Tony’s twin daughters become the object of Kate’s manipulation. but one of them, Eve, is a manipulator in her own right, not to mention batshit insane, having tried multiple times to murder her twin sister, the first when they were only five years old.
Sex, violence, rape, disfigurement, murder, kidnapping, people getting blown up in accidents, adventure…painting landscapes! There’s even a subplot that involves the McGregor/Blackwells in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Master of the Game dutifully ticks off all the requisites except, a bit surprisingly, incest. Most of the characters are difficult to root for, but it’s still fun to follow their story. Kate is a surprisingly complex character who walks the line between hero and villain, but everything goes out the window once the murderous psychopath Eve enters the story. She’s hilariously over the top, an arch-villain the likes of which could only be produced in the era of Dynasty and, well, Sidney Sheldon novels. her every thought is pure evil, her every action part of some scheme meant to destroy those around her, particularly her dopily loyal twin sister who, despite multiple attempts on her life, never catches on to how insane Eve is. There is nothing the least bit subtle or complex about Eve, nothing redeeming. As a result, she is perhaps the book’s best character.
Master of the Game glides along a glossy surface, never delving particularly deep into reflection or character. these are broadly drawn stock moving through a broadly drawn story – but it’s a story that packs a great deal of excitement into its pages, full of machinations and the sort of comeuppances that are required by law to be describable as “delicious.” For all the years I scoffed at Sidney Sheldon books, once I finally read one…I found it to be exactly what I thought it would be, right down to the cover featuring the ol’ diamond with some blood on it. But I found that I was unabashedly on board with its every indulgence. These sorts of books have been written for decades. As a result, the tropes of Master of the Game are pretty well worn, which means there’s not much that proves totally surprising. It’s a testament then to Sheldon’s skill at writing page-turners that he can deliver pretty much exactly what you expect but make it imminently readable regardless.