Archangel, by Robert Harris

[ed: if I weren't so keen on getting these to be about 500 words every time, I would have posted four words regarding this book: Read it. Trust me.]

My only regret is that I didn’t pay attention to Nick Hornby the FIRST time he said he had the “cleverest brother in law” on the planet/ever in history/without a doubt. Because then I would have been reading these excellent works much earlier in life. As it is, I am having the uniquely wonderful experience of coming upon an addictive author late enough in his career that there is a catalogue of works already published, but not so late that there are no more forthcoming.

Archangel opens with a quote from Stalin: “Death solves all problems - no man, no problem.” (1918) When you turn the page, the stage is now in a Russian hotel room, at night, with a conversation between British Historian “Fluke” Kelso, whose focus is narrowed on Stalin, and a man, Papu Rapava, who was the bodyguard to one of Stalin’s inner-circle. The story Rapava tells focuses on the night of Stalin’s stroke, the refusal to send for doctors, and the theft of Stalin’s private notebook. The notebook had largely been regarded as myth, and as such discounted by all of Kelso’s contemporaries, who are in town with Kelso attending a symposium regarding the opening of Russia’s archives. If Rapava’s story is true, then the book is the salvation Kelso’s career needs. If Rapava’s story is true, then his life and Kelso’s are both in danger. If Rapava’s story is true, Stalinistic rule might once again come to Russia.

The next morning, after Rapava has fled the hotel, a very hungover Kelso makes his way out into modern (set in the late 1990s) Moscow to verify the story. By calling up a single contact, and speaking a single phrase over the phone lines being monitored by a government that is still paranoid, Kelso sets into motion a string of events that span Moscow and the northern woods of Russia. Harris weaves information of the way life was under Stalin seamlessly into the way life is after Stalin. Tales of torture and fear butt up against madmen whose only goal is to re-insert a Stalin Figure in the Kremlin. This is historical fiction at its best: accurate, insightful, and inspiring.

Kelso teams up with Rapava’s daughter and an American reporter named O’Brien. Together they unwind the mystery of the notebook. I know what you’re thinking: The DaVinci Code, The Boys From Brazil, and countless others have been suspenseful thrillers dealing with an historical leader who may or may not have left a legacy behind that will change the world. People will die to protect the secret just as there are those willing to die to expose it. This is true, and like those other novels I mentioned, this is well worth reading. I stayed up far beyond my body’s willingness to keep its eyes open just so I could get to that perfect ending that Harris does so well. The ending that you couldn’t exactly see coming until it was spilled across the page in front of and when you read the last word you know that it could have gone no other way. This is certainly a must read.

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