Thrilling race to unlock Stalin's secrets; Archangel. By Robert Harris. (Hutchinson, pounds 16.99). Reviewed by Christine Barker.
Robert Redford recently scored a hit with The Horse Whisperer. Now Mel Gibson appears to be hoping for a similar success with this latest political thriller from the one time Panorama and Newsnight reporter whose earlier great success Enigma, is current ly being turned into a film with a screen play by Tom Stoppard, and Mick Jagger in charge of production.
Whether Gibson intends to star in Archangel is another matter entirely. Certainly the part of Fluke Kelso offers a challenge to the all American boy. Or any other actor for that matter.
Kelso is a bit of a rebel rouser. A drunken, middle aged former historian from Oxford, he has travelled to Moscow for an important conference at which the newly released Soviet archives are about to be given a world airing.
The time is the present day. Russia, divided and sliding into anarchy and bankruptcy, is no place for any law abiding foreigner.
But Kelso is fascinated by the chance of learning some of the secrets of the communist state once ruled by the iron fist of Stalin. Particularly as he is on the conference agenda to read an important paper about the former Soviet dictator. On the nigh t after his paper is unveiled to the other delegates, Kelso is visited in his hotel room by an old man who claims to have been a bodyguard to Beria, Stalin's feared chief of police.
The night Stalin had his fatal stroke, the old man claims he was at the Dacha along with Beria, and between them they managed to steal the dictator's papers. In particular one notebook bound in black oilskin. Intrigued, Kelso decides to spend the morn ing in the Lenin library checking out the story.
By evening the former historian finds himself embroiled in a mish-mash of violence and corruption that sends him haring across Russia to the edge of the Arctic Circle and the port of Archangel where the final secrets of Joseph Stalin lie buried.
Tense, terse, and at times utterly terrifying, this is Harris at racing speed. If some of the situations seem contrived, and the characters rather less believable than earlier Harris creations, it is still a good example of the novel/thriller that turns on the political whims of madmen.