JUST BEFORE the Bolsheviks executed him in 1917, the doomed Czar Nicholas II confessed to having hidden in a certain icon of St. George and the Dragon a document of staggering value and international importance. Or so author Jeffrey Archer assures us in considerable detail. The problem is that unless the icon is found by June 20, 1966, the document it contains won't be worth the vellum or parchment it's written on. We're talking here of billions and billions, which back in 1966 was still serious money.
It seems that a fake icon of St. George and the Dragon had been hanging in the Winter Palace all these years. The real icon -- with the sacred document -- was stolen and spirited off to Nazi Germany where it mysteriously disappeared. The KGB gets the assignment to retrieve the lost icon, of course. And just to make sure everybody understands how important the secret document really is, none other than Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev himself outlines the problem to the by now hooked reader and the quaking head of the KGB.
Brezhnev talks the way all fictional Kremlin bigwigs talk, in complete sentences with plenty of vivid imagery and lots of subjunctive clauses: "So you can see, Comrade Zaborski," the General Secretary tells the hapless head of the KGB and us, "we have one month before the deadline, but if you can discover the whereabouts of the original icon, President Johnson's defense strategy would be rendered virtually useless, and the United States would then become a pawn on the Russian chessboard."
Right about here I think it only fair to give the potential reader of A Matter of Honor a small clue as to the real nature of the mysterious document. Those who skipped American History, 1850-1900, may read on without fear. Others should do so at their own risk. The clue is that the document involves a deal handled by a guy named Seward and concerns something a bit larger than Texas.
A week or so after the KGB gets its bring-me-the-icon-of-Nicholas-II orders, a will is being read in Hampshire, England. A passed-over British colonel has bequeathed his young son, ex-Army Captain Adam Scott, M.C., 500 quid and a mysterious letter that the colonel kept unopened for nearly 20 years. While stationed at Nuremberg during the trials, the colonel was the last person to see Hermann Goering alive before the war criminal escaped the hangman's rope by poisoning himself. As I understand it, Goering gave the colonel the letter as a tip for being rather decent to him.
Since young Captain Scott is unemployed and with dim prospects, he rips open the long-sealed letter only to find it written in German. He cagily has it translated, paragraph by paragraph, by three different persons, one of them a young and attractive German woman who is subsequently murdered by the KGB's top gun, Alex Romanov. That's right. One of those Romanovs. AND SO the chase is on, for essentially this is a chase novel that zooms around much of Switzerland, France and England with Romanov in close pursuit of former Captain Scott who, we learn, earned his Military Cross by steadfastly withstanding torture in Malaya during the troubles.
Scott gets the icon out of a Swiss bank after a certain amount of interesting rigamarole and discovers the hidden document. Upon reading it, he finally realizes why all those people are trying to kill him. So he starts for London, trusting virtually nobody but utter strangers, only to be outwitted time and again by the wily Romanov. All this takes time and the fateful date of June 20 draws closer and closer, pushing Leonid Brezhnev and Lyndon Johnson nearer and nearer to the panic stage. And as everyone races on by car, train, plane and bus I became quite interested in how Captain Adam Scott, M.C. would defeat the dastardly Romanov and thus preserve the free world.
There is in Archer's novel enough death and violence for even the most insatiable. It comes in assorted modes: shootings, beatings, knifings, a bit of garrotting, and some excruciating torture that Captain Scott faces up to with admirable British fortitude by reciting over and over all of the titles of Shakespeare's plays.
What Jeffrey Archer lacks in style and ear, he almost makes up for in energy, pace, plot and occasional wit. A Matter of Honor is one of those novels whose demands for suspended disbelief are particularly heavy. Some -- probably those who stayed awake during American History, 1850-1900 -- may find all this mildly annoying. Others will simply find it entertaining. I found it a bit of both. Ross Thomas' latest novel is "Briarpatch."