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There are books that you agree to review, and then there are those that you beg for -- just to have the opportunity to read it a few weeks before everyone else. I jumped at the chance to get my hands on Robert Harris's latest roller coaster, Archangel. It's been four years since the publication of Enigma -- four years since the world has had the pleasure of reading a novel by this British master. Unbelievably, Enigma topped his debut, Fatherland. Can he do it again with Archangel?
Harris took us on a criminal investigation in postwar Berlin after the Nazis won World War II in Fatherland, and showed us the high-tension world of English code-breakers in Enigma. Harris has a way of bringing us to frightening, mysterious places, and as demonstrated by Archangel, no place is more frightening than Russia after the fall of communism. With vivid language and sharp research, he makes us feel the fear and the hopelessness of a nation without a soul and of the people desperate to regain what once was.
Each of Harris's thrillers is superior, suspenseful, and wild, but the new world order makes Archangel stand out. With current headlines screaming about the instability within the former Soviet Union, no book has been more topical -- or so alarmingly possible.
Fluke Kelso was once a scholar of promise, but like so many in the highly competitive world of academia, he's never delivered. But one night, at a symposium in Moscow concerning the release of secret Soviet archives, he is approached by Papu Rapava, a former Kremlin bodyguard with a story to tell. No one but the desperate Kelso would believe the tale, for what Rapava describes is a sort of Holy Grail among researchers: an actual diary left by Joseph Stalin himself. Such an artifact, if it's genuine -- and if Kelso can survive the fascist Vladimir Mamantov, who wants it for his own agenda -- would be the coup of a lifetime for the discredited researcher.
Before Kelso can learn the location of the diary, Rapava disappears, and Kelso's search for the former bodyguard leads him to the man's daughter, a whore selling herself in the new Moscow of drugs, corruption, and the Russian mafia. With an unscrupulous American journalist hot on their heels, a major of the new KGB close behind, and the shadowy Mamantov following them all, the two follow a trail that leads from Moscow's seedy underbelly to the industrial city of Archangel, where Russia once built her fleets of submarines, to a remote camp on the edge of the Siberian nothingness, and finally to a shocking conclusion that bites like the wind blowing off the tundra. What Kelso sees as the coup of his career might turn out to be the catalyst for an actual coup in Russia. There is a legacy behind the diary, a legacy of evil and death, and Fluke Kelso is unwittingly about to unleash it on the world.
The writing is taut and explosive, and whether Harris is describing the macabre site of a brutal execution or the curdled expressions of the babushkas tirelessly sweeping the refuse of a decaying society, he makes you see, hear, and smell it all. And the plot? The plot is so twisted and clever that you can't put the book down until the end. (That's not a promise, it's a warning. If you start reading on a weeknight, plan to be late for work the following day.)
—Jack B. Du Brul