Nucleus by Rory Clements

Review published on January 9, 2018.

If you want to kick start your year with a cracking historical thriller then Nucleus is for you. Clements tackles some interesting and largely unexplored aspects of the 1930s in the build up to war. I really liked the first book in the Tom Wilde series, Corpus, but this follow up is even better. The fact that the characters are established means that the story in unencumbered by introductions and the plot draws you in immediately. Nucleus is fast paced and intelligent, a real page turner. It will appeal to fans of Robert Harris’s last novel Munich and Chris Petit’s The Butchers of Berlin. This is historical thriller writing that matches the best of the genre, a novel you really want to tear through. I think Tom Wilde is set to become as well loved as Clements Elizabethan spy John Shakespeare.

Some writers have an easy style that you feel comfortable with from the very first page and that is definitely true of Rory Clements. I knew I would like the novel and had a clear idea of the territory we were in straight away, he is very good at scene setting. Nucleus is a classy thriller that effortlessly jumps around Pre-war Europe unfolding a complex but very readable tale. It all revolves around Irish-American Cambridge history professor Tom Wilde. He is a part-time spy and anglophile and a great character.

In Corpus (plot spoiler for that novel in this paragraph), Wilde was the reluctant spy drawn into a web of deceit when he couldn’t resist investigating the suspicious death of a fellow don at Cambridge. Powerful people were plotting to halt the abdication of Edward VIII to subvert the democratic government of Britain and establish a fascist state – Tom Wilde and a select band of helpers thwart the plan.

Wilde is an expert on Francis Walsingham and uses his knowledge of the spy-master to guide his investigations. He has spent the years since 1936 trying to rebuild his normal life, writing a book on Robert Cecil and cultivating his relationship with Lydia.

Nucleus is set in 1939. Wilde is visiting the US when he is called to the White House and recruited by President Roosevelt to spy on the British. His mission is to find out more about the scientists involved in the Cavendish Group at Cambridge, to sound out their attitudes and the possibility of nuclear weapon development in the light of new scientific knowledge. Wilde has to report to the mysterious and dangerous Colonel Dexter Flood, a really dislikeable character. The stakes are the highest possible – the chance to determine the outcome of the coming war. Not everyone in America supports the British, some interests want the Germans to win the arms race. Initially Wilde’s task seems pretty straightforward, keeping an eye on the very talkative Cambridge dons but things soon get out of control; a child is kidnapped, an IRA bombing campaign comes to Cambridge and a leading scientist is murdered on the eve of leaving for the US. Wilde doesn’t know who to trust or where to turn. Meanwhile Lydia, his girlfriend, is determined to do her bit to fight the Nazis.

Clements effortlessly sets up the plot in the first chapter with the chilly presence of six men shut in an anonymous room at the IG Farben factory in Frankfurt – Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitdienst, and a mix of scientists and spies. The scientists believe that based on the work of Otto Hahn and Joliot/Curies a run away chain reaction makes a fission weapon or nuclear bomb possible. Heydrich wants to know what the Americans and the British think, so the Cavendish Group at Cambridge becomes a target for his spies. If necessary Heydrich is willing to sanction murder to stop the British group.

As the story has many strands, any one of which a lesser writer might have made the whole story of the novel we also have some great villains. By the time I finished I couldn’t help wondering where Clements will take his characters next. It’s already 1939 so we must be heading into WWII for Wilde’s next outing.

There are some fantastic characters in Nucleus, the loud American millionaire Milt Hardiman, Clarissa Lancing the Hollywood actress and her brother, the physicist Geoffrey. Old friend Philip Eaton of The Times and the secret service resurfaces but Wilde is trying to resist being owned by the British or the Americans. Most interesting is the mysterious Bloch/Baumgarten in Germany, a character I think will feature again as this series progresses.

As a thorough researcher, Clements has an impeccable sense of time and place. The streets of Berlin come alive with spies on every corner and Hitler Youth gangs intimidating people for cash there is a real sense of the menace that ordinary citizens must have felt. The American German Bund and the IRA campaign are really clever strands of the story – thought provoking and enlightening. There are some very nice misleading threads that keep the reader on their toes but ultimately it all comes together as the pace builds to a nice crescendo. I am already looking forward to the next Tom Wilde novel. This is a great read.

Paul Burke 5/4

Nucleus by Rory Clements
Zaffre 9781785763717 hbk Jan 2018

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