If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.
With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.
The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.
What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.
I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.