I first read Archangel back in the late 1980s when I was working my way through Gerald Seymour’s books for the first time. It quickly became a favourite and I always intended to read it again. Finally in 2013 I have got around to it, a little later than expected! I’m very please to say that the book was just as good to return to after all this time and I consider it one of the strongest of the earlier books.
The story begins with a prisoner in a British jail suffering a fatal heart attack. An SIS officer quickly appears at the scene, concerned at what has happened. For the prisoner is a Russian and was essential to an upcoming spy swap. We quickly find out the details.
The British spy in question turns out to be Michael Holly, a young engineer working for a British firm. He has fluent Russian because his parents arrived in England as refugees after World War 2. His firm was doing some business with the Soviet Union so he was the logical person to send to meetings in Moscow. SIS agent Alan Millet approached Holly as a courier for a job in Moscow. Unfortunately the KGB were staking out the drop and Holly was arrested.
At first Holly is treated as a foreigner and kept in relatively peasant surroundings in Moscow while the details of the spy swap are put together. Unfortunately when the Russian dies the Russians send Holly off to a gulag, treating him as a Soviet citizen because both his parents were.
At the cap is KGB officer Rudakov, a young up and coming officer serving his time and convinced he is meant for great things. When Holly arrives he is sure a confession from the Englishman will be his ticket to a quick promotion.
But he didn’t count on Holly stubborn behaviour. Immediately Holly looks for chinks in the amour of the camp and any way he can to strike back with acts of sabotage. These eventually lead to an escape attempt and Holly inadvertency inspires a full scale rebellion in the camp. The rebellion sequences remain some of the strongest writing Seymour has done. And the ending remains as one of his most moving.
Seymour paints a grim picture of life in the camps, the endless days of work and the cold for the misfits that make up the camp prisoner population, the zeks. It is also nice to see the KGB officer depicted as a mere human being with his faults but as it turns out with
decency as well.
I would easily rate Archangel one of the top five or six books Seymour has written. It wouldn’t be a bad place to start either.