Nucleus

by Rory Clements, Zaffre, £12.99

All the best thrillers inform as well as entertain, and Rory Clements offers us the choreography as well as the tap dance in this novel set in Cambridge on the eve of World War II. The action revolves around the race between the boffins at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory and their counterparts in Germany to create the world’s first nuclear bomb.

With the stakes so high, it is not long before the body of a murdered physicist is fished out of the River Cam and our hero, a professor of history called Tom Wilde, finds himself confronted by a cast of characters whose loyalties are not entirely clear.

Luckily, Wilde is an expert on the wiles of Elizabeth I’s papist-hunting spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and so he negotiates with élan the competing challenges of a beautiful English actress, a vulgar American millionaire and the Jewish mother of a boy kidnapped by the Nazis. On occasion, these fictional characters interact with real-life figures of the era.

There is an interesting subplot relating to the IRA’s bombing campaign on the British mainland that got under way in January 1939 after one of its leaders, James O’Donovan, wrote to the British foreign secretary Lord Halifax informing him that if the British did not withdraw their troops from Northern Ireland within four days he and his comrades would consider themselves at war. As the author observes, German military intelligence was delighted to discover that there were enemies within prepared to wreak havoc and, thanks to its financial and logistical backing, the IRA’s chief of staff, Sean Russell, and his men were able to do just that.

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