Review

The Icon

by Neil Olson

Once
in a while you crack the binding on a book that you
find…disturbing. I don't use "disturbing" as a synonym for
its next-door neighbor "shocking" or even "scandalous," its cousin
down the road. No, I mean "disturbing" in the sense that it gets
the brain cells moving, shakes and bakes them a bit, and gets you
looking at the world from a different perspective. THE ICON by Neil
Olson is this month's -- and maybe this year's --- disturbing
novel.

The icon in this instance is a painting of the Holy Mother of
Katarini, a religious icon thought to have been destroyed in a
fire. When it turns up as an item in the home of a deceased private
collector, however, its continued existence resonates across
decades and around the world. Matthew Spear, a curator specializing
in Greek works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recognizes the
painting as a famous work that will add to his employer's
collection as well as to his own career.

But the painting has far greater significance to a small --- and
very dangerous --- number of people, including Spear's godfather
and grandfather, and a fugitive Nazi who has been chasing the
painting while avoiding justice for decades. The subtle adversarial
maneuvers of the three men against one another have consumed the
better part of six decades.

Spear is caught in the middle of a world of deceit and subterfuge;
with him is Ana Kessler, a part-time art dealer whose grandfather
quietly has held the icon in his possession. Spear and Kessler
slowly come to realize that the icon is more than an ancient and
rare work of art, and in fact may be a source of fantastic and
unbelievable power.

When the icon is spirited away under false pretenses, the search
for the work becomes more dangerous, as the Greek Orthodox Church
itself and other parties become more involved and everyone seeking
the work grows more desperate. When the truth behind the origin of
the work is revealed, it leaves Spear and Kessler with difficult
choices, and with only themselves --- and perhaps one another ---
to rely upon.

Olson's tone here is surprisingly strong and confident. Though the
telling of THE ICON spans continents and decades, Olson remains
sure-footed, guiding his reader slowly, where necessary, along a
complex path but not hesitating to pick up the narrative pace when
the storyline so requires. Olson relies more on subtle tensions
than pyrotechnics (though such are present here as well) to move
things along, so that more cerebral readers who might as a rule
ordinarily eschew thrillers will appreciate this intelligent,
well-plotted narrative.

While working as a literary agent is Olson's primary occupation,
THE ICON is more than enough reason to hope that he will find
himself on the creative side of the desk in short order.
Recommended.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

The Icon
by Neil Olson

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060748389
  • ISBN-13: 9780060748388