Arrow, 1998, 421 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-09-928241-0
Robert Harris’ early reputation was based on Fatherland and Enigma, two thrillers that delved deep into history for inspiration. Fatherland, of course, is the poster cover for accessible alternate history (Nazis triumphant! Fear the thought!) while Enigma used WW2-era Bletchley Park as a handy setting for a thriller. With Archangel, Robert Harris gets further away from WW2 by setting his story in the present, but don’t think for a minute that he has shrugged off historical research: While contemporary, Archangel pretty much revolves around the legacy of Joseph Stalin.
The putative protagonist of the tale is one “Fluke” Kelso, a historian with credibility problems who, while passing through modern-day Moscow for a conference, finds himself the recipient of an unexpected barroom confession: Incredibly enough, a man tells Kelso about Stalin’s secret diaries and where they may be buried. As Kelso gulps down information that could lead to a significant historical discovery, the plot is set in motion. It’s hardly surprising to find out that other people are very, very interested in those diaries, and that their goals are dramatically opposed to academic research and publication.
But things are seldom simple, especially in contemporary Moscow. In the hall of dark mirrors that is post-communist Russia, who’s being manipulated by who? In due time, Kelso find himself tracking down an man who has disappeared, running away from the state police along with two untrustworthy allies: a dangerously bitter woman and a journalist with an agenda of his own. Worse yet: what started out as a search for a historical document eventually becomes a confrontation with the ugly possibility of a resurgent Soviet empire.
It won’t surprise anyone to find that Harris’ third novel is heavy on historical research, and a bit softer in the thriller department. Even casual Soviet history buffs will find much to contemplate here, as Harris is able to dig down deep in the murk of Soviet history to wrap up an entertaining historical mystery with grave contemporary implications. The desperate atmosphere of present-day Russia is well sketched, with plenty of evocative details and believable characters, some of whom taken from the pages of history.
The more conventional thriller elements of the novel, unfortunately, aren’t so satisfying. Harris often lets his sense of detail and his research overpower the need for forward momentum, and Archangel leaves the reader with the impression of a short book padded with too many side tangents. The beginning takes its time to heat up, and the ending is particularly long in coming after the final secrets have all been exposed, with an extra-special character who seems clearly too far-fetched to be credible given the authenticity of the rest of the novel.
More significantly, Harris is a bit too glib in supposing how his historical menace could become a future peril for all of Western Civilization: Politics have a way of never turning out how you would expect them, and it’s not as if modern history isn’t crammed with “sure-fire candidates” who ended crashing down with a whimper, especially if they’re not quite sane.
Archangel also ends up on an abrupt ambiguity that doesn’t really matter one way or another, so low is our attachment to the characters. Harris’ novels are most notable for their Big Ideas rather than their talking-heads, and this one is no exception: Readers are more likely to raise their shoulders as the final shot goes off, sufficiently satisfied at the way the historical treasure box was unwrapped.
Generally speaking, it’s a solid thriller –sufficiently interesting not to be forgotten the next day, but too plodding and generic to really make an impression. Harris doesn’t step all that far away from his area of expertise with this story, so his regular readers are unlikely to find themselves in unfamiliar territory. It’s probably a little bit more interesting than Enigma (time will tell), but still a distance away from Fatherland, which is likely to remain Harris’ best-known novel for quite a while. But who knows? Maybe Harris’ following book, Pompeii, will change everything…