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Thriller may not be the right word for Robert Harris's Archangel (Random House, 1998), a book that is both more thoughtful and less violent than the run of suspense fiction. All the characters are interesting and three-dimensional, even the minor ones. Even the dead ones.

Joseph Stalin haunts every page of ‘Archangel.’ As our perspective grows longer, it becomes harder to determine with any finality which monster was the worse, Hitler or Stalin. The notion that I can imagine Stalin better than I can Hitler is a complication that I don’t know what to make of. Is Stalin thereby more ‘human,’ and, if so, more reprehensible? One thing’s certain: Stalin’s victims far outnumber Hitler’s. And while Hitler wreaked havoc by inflating his cronies’ ideas of what they could get away with, Stalin belittled everyone he touched, often unto the vanishing point. But as for the millions whom he didn’t touch, directly or indirectly, they seem to have adored him, and he’s got plenty of fans in Russia today. There’s an almost unbridgeable gap between ‘popular’ perceptions of the Russian leader and those based on first- or second-hand acquaintance, and the tension between these two ways of seeing Stalin keeps the atmosphere of ‘Archangel’ in perpetual motion. Even more than the ruses of suspense, it makes the novel a real page-turner.

‘Archangel’ is also haunted by a literary type that I would explore at greater length if it weren’t so depressing. This is the early-blooming male in middle age. He’s a figure of disenchantment and disaffection. Inevitably perhaps, the dreams that he floated on his youthful achievements have not come true. His inability to sustain relationships with women, even though they still find him attractive despite thinning hair and thickening paunch, is a sign that he’s never allowed himself to grow up. The oppression of having made nothing of his career finds relief in the recklessness of having nothing to lose. When everything conspires to assure him that his best days are over, he takes the first chance that comes along to snatch at heroism. Harris’s protagonist, Fluke Kelso, makes as appealing an example of the type that I’ve encountered in a long time. A better-adjusted character probably wouldn’t have such absorbing adventures. A better-adjusted character would probably sense that he’d been set up.

Harris tells his story smoothly, and writes with complete control.

The bottle of scotch was drained, and Kelso was on his knees now before the minibar like a priest before his altar. He wondered how his hosts at the historical symposium would feel when they got the bill, but that was less important right now than the task of keeping the old man fueled and talking. He pulled out handfuls of miniatures – vodka, more scotch, gin, brandy, something German made from cherries – and cradled them across the room to the table. As he sat down and released them, a couple of bottles rolled onto the floor, but Rapava paid them no heed. He wasn’t an old man in the Ukraina [Hotel] anymore; he was back in ’53 – a frightened twenty-five-year-old at the wheel of a dark green Packard, the highway to Moscow shining white in the headlights before him, Lavrenty Beria rocklike in the rear.

The plot, while ornamented by a few, perhaps unavoidable Muscovian tropes (drab hotel rooms, grim public housing), has nevertheless not been constructed by the numbers. I will divulge very little of it here. What begins as the search, in Moscow, for a notebook allegedly kept by Stalin during his last years ends with the discovery, outside the White Sea port of Archangel, of a legacy altogether different in nature. Harris adeptly provides his novel with not one but two backgrounds, the farther one colored by the paranoia that Stalin kept percolating, and the nearer pockmarked by gravity-free disorders of the current Russian economy. Faced with the choice, you, too might opt for a ruthless dictator. ‘Archangel’ is certainly powerful enough to bring the moral dilemma alive in all its complexity.

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