Blackmailers, spies, and aristocrats try to outsmart each other in the race to find an ancient chamber of divinely beautiful design.
In a flurry of blink-and-you-missed-them scenes, first-novelist Harris introduces the reader to quite the array of characters and plot points. Like every good international thriller, this one has a shadowy, pseudo-CIA government agency called simply The Agency, this one headed by the urbane Isaiah Hawkins. Worried these days not so much with communist spies or toppling third-world governments, Hawkins is instead interested in an arcane piece of art history lore: The Amber Room. Designed in Prussia in the early 18th century, the glittering chamber covered in 129 pieces of amber was traded to Peter the Great, became a legendary Russian art treasure, and was ultimately stolen by the Nazis, lost and presumed destroyed in WWII. Hearing that it still exists, the Agency wants to retrieve the Amber Room and run an operation whereby the US-backed candidate in the Russian presidential election can claim that he has recovered this symbol of national pride and get a boost in the polls. Very early in the hunt for the Amber Room, however, a young woman only peripherally involved in the matter gets hurled to her death from the 39th floor of a Manhattan apartment building. Into the tangle of conspirators come corpulent blackmailer Ivo Jenkins, tough and sleek Agency operative Kathryn Blaire, a former Soviet defector, and a few members of a lost strand of the Medici family. After the initially confusing setup (and, it must be said, a driving plot device that never quite holds water), Harris streamlines his story considerably and sets about telling a workmanlike tale of intrigue that holds a few surprises.
A true and proper international thriller whose generously sketched characters quickly grow on you.