James Brabazon – Arkhangel
Published by Michael Joseph/Penguin, paperback £8.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired a panel including the author at Aye Write! 2021, Glasgow’s book festival. Thanks to Bob McDevitt and the Aye Write! team for inviting me.
First, the official blurb: Officially, Max McLean doesn’t exist. An off-the-books assassin for the British government, he operates alone. But when a routine hit goes badly wrong, a cryptic note on a $100 bill prised from his target’s dead fingers suggests there’s more to the mission than meets the eye. Is someone from Max’s former life trying to send him a message? From Paris to Jerusalem and on to the frozen wastes of north-west Russia, Max is forced into a desperate race for the truth – with unknown enemies determined to stop him at any cost. And when the secret coded into the banknote is finally revealed, only one thing is certain: with the fate of the world in his possession, failure is not an option…
It’s January 2018, and we’re in a ditch outside an ancient cottage in a rain-swept west of Ireland, watching a target until the moment arrives. Short sentences, all thoughts to the job and the exit plan. No florid existential musings, focus is everything. The moment arrives; move in, fire the shot.
But everything is wrong. The target has been dead for at least a week; the shadowy figure our man – Max McLean – tracked in the gloom behind closed curtains wasn’t the target, Chappie Connor, but the killer. Max pulls a piece of paper – a $100 bill – from the dead man’s hand before diving out the door to escape the killer, taking a couple of bullets with him. A meeting between Max and his boss, Frank, adds to the mystery: Connor arrived in Ireland recently with a bag of US dollars, part of anything up to $1 billion being handled by the Russians for someone Frank has yet to identify.
So, a routine job has become something else entirely – but Max still wants to know who the gunman in the cottage is, and whether the word written on the banknote is a message for him: “Arkhangel”, in Cyrillic. Max’s grandmother and mother were born in a village of that name, though he has never been there. If it’s not a message for him, what does it mean and who is it for? It’s business for Frank, but it’s definitely personal for Max.
It’s not until the bullets have been extracted and the wounds stitched by a friendly under-the-radar doctor – a process accompanied by a liquid amber glass of local anaesthetic – that Max thinks about something other than the mission. Lots of personal history is alluded to, including an unforgettable, unobtainable woman, Rachel. It’s a little cliched, but it deftly shows another side to Max while reader and character grab a breather between intense action scenes.
The pause doesn’t last long though, as the police arrive a few hours later: “The cavalry wasn’t coming to rescue me, it was coming to ride me down.” There are great lines throughout Arkhangel, the blackest of black humour popping up to break the tension. The descriptions are also top-notch, making you see and feel everything Max sees and feels until you are wincing in pain when he gets punched. Brabazon is a documentary maker and he brings that filmic eye to his writing with great effect.
Max does of course evade the cavalry, and the next round of mysterious people who capture him, and the hospital bed he ends up in at one point. There’s a lot of death, danger and cunning escapes and we’re not even 100 pages in – Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible hero Ethan Hunt looks like a wimp compared to Max McLean.
Fearing he has been thrown to the wolves by his boss, Max must stay ahead of whoever is after him while he figures out who is after him. But everywhere he goes, violence goes with him. Some of the deaths are described in clinically graphic fashion, yet parts reminded me of reading The Iliad at school – let it not be said that Brabazon isn’t an elegant writer of pain. There’s enough blood spilled to fill a small lake, and at any moment a gun is likely to be whipped out to add to the chaos. There’s a scene in a Paris bar that builds and builds like something from a Jason Statham movie, including possibly my favourite line of the book, as Max thinks to himself mid-fight: “Thirty-six years of Shaolin kung fu and the best I could manage was a Glasgow kiss.” Max by name, max the level this novel is at – strap in and hold on.
From Paris we head to Tel Aviv, and a glimmer of information on who is hunting Max and why – plus a glimmer of information about that $100 bill. And with the help of maths student Baaz, Max gets closer to decrypting things – money laundering and quantum computing are both in the mix; this is a plot that eschews the standard genre McGuffins – and the violence dials down slightly as subterfuge and smart thinking come into play.
The bright warmth of Tel Aviv is swapped for the snow and biting cold of Moscow. We’re getting closer. Finally, inevitably, we get to Arkhangel, where the last questions are posed and the last answers given. There is a desperate, dangerous night journey to a rendezvous with friendly faces, a final action-packed setpiece – and a final delight.
James Brabazon told the Aye Write! audience that over the years he had been told many things off the record, and moving into fiction allows him to use this information freely – it also means he gets to ask questions like, “I need to assassinate a politician in a hotel room, how could I do that?” and then give the answers to Max. It’s a treat for the reader to see the results.
For those who read a lot of thrillers, there is a checklist of things to expect, and Arkhangel definitely ticks the boxes – but there is a fresh spin here that grabs you. It’s an addictive and unputdownable novel, a high-octane mash-up of the Jason Bourne and John Wick films with a truly creative approach to violence and ultra-black humour. Reading this was the most fun I’ve had for a long time.
James Brabazon is an author, journalist and documentary filmmaker, with a memoir and two Max McLean spy thrillers under his belt. Since 2002 he has produced and directed more than 40 films for the BBC, Channel 4, HBO, Fusion and Discovery all around the world, which have won and been nominated for many awards. He has also given evidence as an expert witness at a war crimes trial in The Hague, and is currently a hostile filming consultant at Channel 4.