Monday, March 23, 2009

Archangel

Archangel: A Novel
© 1998 Robert Harris
432 pages

No one can accuse Robert Harris of same-ness in his settings: after one alternate history mystery novel set in 1975 Nazi Germany, two novels set in ancient Rome, and another set in 1943 Great Britain, his Archangel is set in Yeltsin-era Russia. Western museums are vying for the purchase of Russia's soviet archives, much to the disgruntlement of loyal Bolsheviks. British historian Fluke Kelso is one of the historians visiting Russia for a symposium, but immediately has more to deal with than simply delivering a lecture and listening to his colleagues' own. An old Soviet employee approaches Kelso, hinting that he knows the location of the secret writings of Joseph Stalin -- his "Testament", which vanished shortly after his death. The book opens with the old Soviet telling his story in flashback form to Kelso, who is utterly intrigued after he verifies elements of the old man's story. He begins an inquiry as to where Stalin's papers might be found, attracting the attention of an old KGB man who is committed to restoring the Soviet Union and of Russia's current security police. Blood is shed and the mystery sees Kelso racing to the miserable town of Archangel near Siberia with angry men with guns right behind him. While the book is a fairly enjoyable mystery thriller, it is also a partial commentary on Yeltsin-era Russia: a nation experiencing declining standards of living and rising crime. One of Kelso's colleagues believes that Russia is a new Weimar Republic, needing only a charismatic strongman to lead it and the world to further ruin. The contents of Stalin's "testament" may reveal such a man. Although it was hard to get into at first, the book developed into a fascinating read.

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