This story is set London in early 1914 as Germany was mobilizing and war was inevitable to those that history would prove astute. France was in peril even if England assisted, and the British Empire itself would be at risk if the Germans prevailed. So, The First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill of the Liberal government, armed with a note from King George, convinces The (conservative) Earl of Walden to negotiate a secret treaty with his wife's nephew, Alex Orlov, also nephew to the Czar, for Russia to enter into the fray. The anarchists learn of this plot however, and Feliks, The Man from St. Petersburg, has five pounds sterling and a determination to assassinate Alex Orlov on English soil.
This story is rich with the history that bored us in school, that stuff about Victorian pomp and starving Russian peasants floundering for a new political order, the prelude to communism. Follett gives us a sense of the debauchery bred from wealth and privilege, and the desperation born of inhumanities in an era gone by. He introduces us to men threatened by women's suffrage, others terrorized of government, and through them, we better understand why society changed, or perhaps mutated. That stuff is woven seamlessly into a story of intrigue without long speeches or tedious lectures. We get our lesson without having to take notes.
My only quarrel is Follett's propensity to interrupt with back-story, once with back-story within back-story if I'm not mistaken. It's a minor irritation though, one scratch and it's gone, because we are more worried about how his characters are going to sort out the mess they're in. And in the end, you're going to believe The Man from St. Petersburg might have been.