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The Amber Knight is a (fictional) relic of the past which disappeared at the end of WWII, based on the treasure that the Nazis looted from Russia and Poland during the war, which was stored at Konigsberg Castle until the Russian invasion in 1945. The legendary Amber Room was in that horde and was subsequently lost; to be re-created in St Petersburg at a later date.
The novel itself is contemporary and not historical, but with a flashback to what might have happened in 1945 as its opener…
In a nutshell: Adam Salen, the wealthy American director of a museum trust based in Gdansk, Poland receives an interesting package in the mail. For the princely sum of $50m, or thereabouts at auction, he is offered the Amber Knight. Enclosed photographs indicate that the offer is authentic. Already a witness to a murder at the local casino and well known to the local police, Salen draws on all his resources to investigate the offer, including a word in the ear of his local friendly police detective. The offer seems too good to be true and a shipment of amber also goes missing at the time. The mafia is never far away and the bodies pile up…
I’ll admit to initial doubts about this novel as the opening WWII based scenes were a tad confusing. But then we arrived at the current time and plot and it really did pick up the pace, with far less confusion. It later arrived at a scene which had me thinking "Oh come on!", but moved on again, realism re-installed and accelerated the pace. I was soon page-turning with vigour to the end.
The characters are great here, they unmask over time. Salen is much more than an American wealthy playboy with too much money in his trust fund. He knows what counts in his world and when to pull the plug. He also pushes boundaries and is prepared for personal harm.
Likewise, his museum assistant Magda, completely entwined in her loyalties to history and family, knows her zloty from her euro. And when it comes to the Amber Knight on offer, true or fake imposter, Magda’s mind is ahead of the game.
This is a wonderfully original novel and garners a great pace after a somewhat slowish start. John likes to add the tension of human relationships and that is evident here: there’s a cold sirloin sitting, awaiting room temperature before it finally sizzles on the griddle.
The evocation of setting is so inviting on times that I’m sure the Polish tourist board would be proud – even if the mafia has a big presence in this novel.
Stick with it at the beginning and an enticing, page turning plot ensues…