Kirkus Review: The Present Past
Sixty years after the Russo-Japanese War, a Russian field marshal’s grandson tries to unravel the mystery of a long-lost treasure in this globe-trotting debut novel.
It is 1965 and the Cold War is in full swing. Josh Ross, a World War II veteran–turned-diplomat, arrives in Istanbul to dissuade the Turkish government from pursuing hostilities toward Greece. There, he receives a mysterious letter, written in Russian and meant for his dead father. The missive leads him to André Zommer, an academic who fought in the Russo-Japanese War under Josh’s grandfather. Zommer tells Josh about his grandfather, a favorite of the czar and entrusted by the czarina with “something of great value, which she thought he could safeguard better than anyone”—namely a priceless coronation necklace given by Peter the Great to his second wife. This treasure could change the fortunes of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews looking to immigrate to Israel, so with Sarah Burstein, a Mossad “secretary,” in tow, Josh sets out to find the necklace. But the Soviets are aware of Josh’s presence in Istanbul, and ruthless KGB head Ivan Dzerzhinsky has dispatched operatives to monitor the diplomat’s increasingly suspicious movements as well as deal with anyone who gets in their way. What promises to be a breakneck international thriller in the Dan Brown vein is marred by incompetent antagonists, meager characterization, oddly placed chapter breaks (a prologue is sprinkled over four opening chapters), and a third-person, omniscient point of view that undermines dramatic tension. As a result, the action feels occasionally aimless and the dialogue is largely expositional. This could make for an aggravating read, but the engaging central mystery is rooted in a wealth of research, and Ross relates his story in the kind of breezy, eminently readable prose that frequently makes up for the novel’s shortcomings (“It was always amazing how inhabitants of an area under assault were like flocks of birds before an oncoming storm. Somehow they knew that the winds would howl and the skies would open and bring forth torrents of rain and lightning. They sought shelter far from the storm well before it came”). Autobiographical elements also help to give the narrative the intriguing texture of a tall tale, briskly told by an international man of mystery.
This adventure is more a fanciful story related by a mischievous uncle than an airport thriller—and all the more entertaining for it.