Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

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Conclave by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years – his three Cicero novels and An Officer and a Spy are all excellent – so I had every intention of picking up his latest book, Conclave, as soon as it was published in 2016. The time never seemed quite right, though, which is why it wasn’t until last week that I finally settled down to read it.

Unlike the other Harris novels I’ve read, which were set in the past, Conclave is set in the modern day; the actual date is never stated, but there are enough clues to indicate that it’s in the very near future. As the title suggests, it is a fictional account of a papal conclave – the meeting at which cardinals gather to elect a new pope. Although there have been two conclaves in recent years (resulting in the election of Pope Francis in 2013 and Benedict XVI in 2005), I have to confess that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to either – I remember the television cameras waiting for the first glimpse of white smoke emerging from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the crowds assembling in St Peter’s Square and the announcements of the papal name each new pope had chosen, but not much else. Rest assured, though, that you need have absolutely no familiarity with the conclave process or with the politics of the Catholic Church in order to enjoy this book!

Following the death of an unnamed pope, the reader is guided through the entire conclave by Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man responsible for overseeing the election. With over one hundred cardinals from all over the world arriving at the Vatican to participate, there are plenty of contenders for the papal throne and voting takes place as a series of ballots which continue until a clear winner is found. At first, the sheer number of characters in the novel is overwhelming; we are introduced to cardinal after cardinal and I knew I would never be able to keep them all straight in my mind – but as it turned out, I didn’t really need to. It quickly emerges that there are only a few who have a real chance of becoming pope and Harris does a great job of helping us get to know each of the candidates and to form an opinion of whether they would or would not make a good Holy Father. Ambitious or humble, honest or unscrupulous, each has his own strengths and weaknesses and, as Harris is a writer of thrillers, you can also expect lots of secrets to be revealed, some of which have the potential to influence the outcome of the conclave.

Cardinal Lomeli is a wonderful character. In his position as Dean, he is usually the first to discover the secrets I’ve just mentioned, and must decide how to deal with them. Time after time, he is forced to examine his conscience: is he really just doing his duty or is he in danger of interfering too much? Does he simply believe that the truth must be told or could he be accused of trying to manipulate the result of the election? It’s all very exciting and as the voting pattern changed with each fresh ballot, I became more and more anxious to find out who was going to be the new pope! I knew who I wanted to be chosen and who I suspected would be chosen, but Harris kept me waiting until the very end of the book to find out for sure.

And, unfortunately, it was the ending which struck the only wrong note for me. I had been able to sense that some sort of twist was coming up, and when it did, I felt slightly cheated. It was something that had actually passed through my mind earlier in the novel, only to be dismissed because I had also thought of several other, more convincing ways in which the story could end. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific and explain what I mean, but it would definitely be a spoiler! Still, apart from the ending (which I’m sure some readers will like more than I did), I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It was tense, gripping and – with my complete lack of knowledge of what a conclave involves – absolutely fascinating!

I spotted an earlier Robert Harris novel, Archangel, at the library yesterday so that will be the next of his books that I’ll be reading. It’s not one that had sounded particularly appealing to me, but I’m more than happy to give it a try.