'Archangel' by Robert Harris - reviewed.

Written by Jim Hartley.

Archangel has the key ingredients required of a good historical novel: It is set in a period of rapid change, features a notorious historical figure and a drunken blundering Englishman, has the odd well described gruesome murder and some well-chosen historical detail. For me, a travel book needs to call out ‘wish you were here’, whilst my kind of historical novel should leave me thinking, ‘glad I wasn’t around then!’ That is certainly the case with Archangel. The story flickers between post-USSR Moscow, the days of Boris Yeltsin and his corrupt mob, and the final days of Joseph Stalin - the most unpleasant of the 20th century’s dictators. It’s a toss up to decide which period would have been worse to live in.

And yet this book left me disappointed. Maybe I was expecting too much - Robert Harris is the master of setting his tales in period. The Cicero trilogy, Fatherland and Enigma are all books that I have read twice, so I am a fan.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good story - you should read it. It’s just not as good as his others.

Archangel tells the story of a frantic search for Stalin’s lost personal paper across 1990’s Moscow. The main protagonists have different motivations for wanting the papers but their motivations for wanting them are as unclear as what the papers actually contain. The tale is largely brought alive by the antics of the bohemian, slightly-superior Fluke Kelso, author, drinker and former Oxford History professor (we all know the type). It is him that unearths the evidence, diaries, police reports etc, that leads us eventually to the frozen North and to where the threads of the plot come together.

So where lies the problem? Sadly, it’s the plot. Harris’s storylines sometimes require a suspension of belief - and I’m fine with that as I am with his alternative versions of History-e.g. what might have happened if the Nazis had won the war. But I just didn’t believe that everyone would have got their knickers in such a twist over the rumour of a diary when they were so busy killing each other over a dollar. And if they did, I’m pretty sure that the Russian secret police would have put an end to Mr Kelso as quickly as you could sneeze ‘Novichok’.


Written by Jim Hartley.

Jim Hartley (says he) is unremarkable in every way - apart from his love of food, sport, mustelids and reading. He hopes to retire soon.

Loved this article? Why not read one of Jim's other recommended reads?

  • 106-43 BC The Cicero Trilogy by Robert Harris setting Roman Republic

  • 1415 Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell setting France

  • 1550s and beyond-the Shardlake series by CJ Sansom setting Britain

  • 1885 Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth setting Australia

  • 1893-1940 Guernica by Dave Boling setting Spain

  • 1910-1979 Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks setting France

  • 1922-1954 A gentleman in Moscow-Amor Towles setting Moscow

  • 1944-2014 All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr setting France

  • 1975-1984 A fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry setting India

  • 1979-2003 A thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini setting Afghanistan


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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