Very briefly, then, the lead character is a police detective named Meyer Landsman, who lives in a fleabit building and who is informed by the manager that there's a dead body in one of the rooms. A heroin addict who played a lot of chess is dead, and looking into this killing will bring Landsman and his partner, the happily married Berko Shemets, into conflict with powerful organized crime, a strangely detached mother, and a religious movement that believes that the deceased was the once-in-a-generation potential messiah.
The complications are absolutely mammoth. There's a political thing going on that can't be described for fear of spoiling what in the world is going on with this story, there's our hero's ex-wife, Bina Landsman, another cop who has been assigned to take charge of Landsman and Shemets' department, there's the rather stunning realization that Landsman's sister, a pilot who died a few weeks before the book begins, had met the deceased man and flown him to a very weird location shortly before she died.
There is a whole mess of stuff going on here, and it is told brilliantly. It is every inch as wonderful a story as the works by Hammett and Chandler to which Chabon is clearly paying homage. Please believe me when I tell you that any kind of a summary or introduction more detailed than what I've provided is guaranteed to blow the lid off a pile of surprises. I enjoyed this tremendously, and while Chabon's work has ranged from deeply disappointing to very entertaining, this is by leagues my favorite of his novels. It's flawless and in many respects utterly unlike anything else that I've read. Read it with my strongest recommendation, and then go check Wikipedia and see why I was so amazingly aggravated and annoyed that I didn't allow the book to embrace me with its wonderful surprises.