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Archangel ()


Were it not for the uniformly glowing reviews that each of his books has gotten in every major media outlet, you might well be able to convince me that I've overrated the thrillers of Robert Harris because of the conservative themes of his books (see Orrin's reviews of Fatherland and Enigma).  He's at it again in Archangel, the premise of which is that Stalin may have left behind a secret notebook when he died in March, 1953.

Once promising British historian of Soviet affairs, "Fluke" Kelso, is in post-Gorbachev Moscow for a symposium on the status of the old archives of the Soviet Union.  After his speech he's approached by an elderly Russian man who, over many drinks, tells him an amazing story.  The man, Papu Rapava, was a very young bodyguard for Lavrenty Beria, the brutal head of the NKVD, Stalin's state security agency.  He was on duty the night that Stalin had his fatal stroke and drove Beria to the scene, then witnessed Beria hiding a notebook which he retrieved from Stalin's safe in the Kremlin.  Stalin was notorious for not putting anything on paper, so when rivals toppled Beria from power, both he and Rapava were tortured, but neither revealed the whereabouts of their find.

Kelso sees the notebook as a final chance to redeem his disappointing career, but his fellow historians at the symposium think he's desperately grabbing at straws.  Soon though he's got the Russian secret service and the shadowy remnants of the Communist Party on his tail and Rapava is murdered before they can recover the notebook.  With the help of an American TV newsman and Rapava's daughter Kelso sets out on a dangerous journey that will take them to the frigid woods of Archangel and to a confrontation with Stalin's most dangerous legacy.

Like his other books, Harris uses the materials of actual history as a springboard for an exciting adventure with insidious political overtones.  At one point the characters are discussing Russia's future and suggest that it will be bleak until the nation honestly reckons with the monstrous crimes of Stalin and Lenin.  As they point out, in present day Russia, which never had a Nuremberg Trials or a South African-style Truth Commission, the Communist Party still receives a huge percentage of the vote in national elections and a startling 24% of the populace considers Stalin to be the greatest leader in the country's history.  Harris lays out the case against these butchers and, once again, the discomforting subtext is that this is the regime that we cooperated with in WWII and then coexisted with for the next half century.

During the Cold War, novelists like John Le Carre created a really unfortunate literature of moral equivalency, which suggested that there was little or no difference between the West and the Communist East (see Orrin's review of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.)  That they and other intellectuals of the Left were successful is evidenced by the morally bankrupt policy of détente, which essentially represented our capitulation and an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Communists abhorrent system of totalitarian rule. Today there's at least one author whose books demand that we reconsider that whole period and our delusions about the Soviet Union, particularly in comparison to Nazi Germany.  If you're looking for thrillers that, while action packed, will also make you think, you owe it to yourself to read the books of Robert Harris.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Robert Harris (3 books reviewed)
Thrillers
Robert Harris Links:
    -Robert Harris (atrandom.com)
    -ESSAY : It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war (Robert Harris, November 5, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Forget Islam: bin Laden is no more than a spoilt rich kid (Robert Harris, 10/09/01, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Lessons we can learn from cracking the Enigma code (Robert Harris, October 4, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : So just when did we elect Tony Blair president? (Robert Harris, October 2, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY:  The West Prefers Its Dictators Red (Robert Harris, Sunday Times (London) | October 11, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew  Benefit Of Hindsight  By Richard Breitman  (Robert Harris, Literary Review)
    -PROFILE: In the Fate of Pompeii, Allegories for Today: Robert Harris, the best-selling British author, found the perfect setting for a satirical parable for modern America in ancient Rome. (ALAN COWELL, 11/10/03, NY Times)
    -PROFILE :  Inventing A World In Which Hitler Won  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY times)
    -PROFILE : An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery  (ALAN RIDING KINTBURY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland (Living Marxism)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (MysteryGuide.com)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Michael Specter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaissance)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jonathan Kay, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Richard Givan, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Pourover Press)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GUY POWERS, KNIGHTRIDDER NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW : of ENIGMA By Robert Harris (1995)(Peter Vansittart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of "Enigma" by Robert Harris  (Colleen Salo)
    -REVIEW : of  SELLING HITLER By Robert Harris (1986)(James M. Markham, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pompeii by Robert Harris (Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Robert Harris (Imdb.com)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Robert Harris (atrandom.com)
    -ESSAY : It isn't Malaya all over again: this time it's war (Robert Harris, November 5, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Forget Islam: bin Laden is no more than a spoilt rich kid (Robert Harris, 10/09/01, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : Lessons we can learn from cracking the Enigma code (Robert Harris, October 4, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY : So just when did we elect Tony Blair president? (Robert Harris, October 2, 2001, Daily Telegraph)
    -ESSAY:  The West Prefers Its Dictators Red (Robert Harris, Sunday Times (London) | October 11, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew  Benefit Of Hindsight  By Richard Breitman  (Robert Harris, Literary Review)
    -PROFILE :  Inventing A World In Which Hitler Won  (CRAIG R. WHITNEY, NY times)
    -PROFILE : An Enigma Wrapped in a Mystery  (ALAN RIDING KINTBURY, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland A Thatcherite polemic masquerading as a political thriller is Daniel Nassim's verdict on Robert Harris' Fatherland (Living Marxism)
    -REVIEW : of Fatherland by Robert Harris (MysteryGuide.com)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of ARCHANGEL By Robert Harris (1999)(Michael Specter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (PETER WORTHINGTON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaissance)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Jonathan Kay, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Richard Givan, Lexington Herald-Leader)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (Pourover Press)
    -REVIEW : of Archangel (GUY POWERS, KNIGHTRIDDER NEWS SERVICE)
    -REVIEW : of ENIGMA By Robert Harris (1995)(Peter Vansittart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of "Enigma" by Robert Harris  (Colleen Salo)
    -REVIEW : of  SELLING HITLER By Robert Harris (1986)(James M. Markham, NY Times Book Review)

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