SECOND OPINION: Nucleus by Rory Clements

Review published on January 28, 2018.

This engaging, fast-moving story starts in the spring of 1939, just three months before the start of World War II. In Europe there is rising tension about what is happening in Nazi Germany, with its continuing invasions of other countries and its persecution of Jews. Most people in Britain believe that there will be a war and people carrying gas masks are a common sight on the streets.

However, in Cambridge the partying associated with the university’s traditional May Balls goes ahead, albeit against a background of anxiety that these may be the last for some time. In addition to fears about war, Britain is also having to deal with an escalating IRA bombing campaign.

In Germany, as in Britain and America, the race is on to develop the technology to create the first atomic bomb, with each country being keen to be the first to have access to a weapon which will change the face of warfare. The German High Command is aware of the research going on at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and is eager to get its hands on this information and to prevent Britain from winning this arms race.

American Tom Wilde is a professor of history at Cambridge University and during a recent visit to the States to see his mother, was invited to the White House to meet President Roosevelt. He is asked to “keep his eyes open” when he returns to Cambridge and to liaise with two fellow Americans. However, he is also approached by someone working for MI6 and it soon becomes clear to him that feeling confident about where people’s sympathies lie is going to be anything but straightforward!

Although set primarily in Cambridge, this fast-moving story also covers Germany, the USA and the west coast of Ireland. Amongst the huge cast of characters are Lydia, Tom’s next door neighbour with whom he is romantically involved, his friend Geoffrey Lancing, who works at the Cavendish, Clarissa Lancing, a movie star and his friend’s beautiful sister, German Jewish physicist Eva Haas, Arnold Lindberg, an elderly scientist rescued from Dachau, Eva’s young son, Albert, who has gone missing, apparently having been abducted from a Kindertransport train, Tom’s Irish cousin, Henty O’Gara, with his links to the IRA – and many, many more!

When one of the Cavendish’s top scientists is murdered Tom is drawn into the investigation and finds himself caught up in a far-reaching conspiracy as he attempts to unravel the links between a missing boy, a dead scientist, an IRA bombing campaign, the rescue of Jews from Germany and the race to develop the atomic bomb.

The multiple plots in this thriller ensured that it was never absolutely clear who could be trusted and where their loyalties belonged. A degree of tension was maintained throughout the story and, although the plotting had none of the labyrinthine complexity of a John le Carré novel, it did make for an entertaining and engaging read. Rory Clements’ writing captured an evocative sense of time and place as it portrayed the turbulence and paranoia of this pre-war period. I found most of the characters credible although, for me, some aspects of Tom’s romantic entanglement with Clarissa did require a certain suspension of disbelief!

I thought that both Tom and Lydia were interesting and likeable characters and I found myself wanting to know more about their less than straightforward relationship. From numerous allusions it very quickly became apparent that there had been a previous novel which had featured them – and possibly some of the other characters. I then discovered that this is the second book in the series; the first was Corpus, also set in Cambridge, but three years earlier. Although it is perfectly possible to enjoy Nucleus as a standalone novel, during my reading I all too often found myself distracted by wondering what had gone on in the first story! I am now keen to find out, but think that my enjoyment would have been greater had I read the books in sequence.

An important element in my enjoyment of this story was the author’s inclusion of two real-life heroes, Bertha Brace and Frank Foley. Bertha was a committed Quaker who, following the First World War, became involved as a volunteer in a scheme to feed a million starving children in Germany. Then, following Kristallnacht in November 1938 and the growing awareness of what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany, she was a leading figure amongst those who put pressure on the British Government to offer refuge to 10,000 unaccompanied German Jewish children. In those ten months prior to the start of the war, the work she and her associates did in organising the Kindertransports saved the lives of all those children. Although I had heard of Bertha, by using her in the story and by making Lydia a Quaker, the author was able to demonstrate that the German government of the time was very sympathetic to the Quaker organisation – and that was a fact I hadn’t been aware of.

Frank Foley was also responsible for saving the lives of many thousands of Jews. He was based in Berlin as Britain’s Passport Control Officer (he was also the MI6 station chief) and when desperate Jewish families and individuals applied for visas to enter Britain, he broke all the rules, often using the flimsiest of excuses, to ensure that they were given them.

Rory Clements decision to feature these two relatively unknown heroes added a powerful authenticity to the accounts of the number of brave people who were prepared to risk their own lives to rescue as many Jewish children and families as they could and this certainly influenced my decision to give this book four rather than three stars. I am aware that the third story in the series is in the process of being written and I will be keeping my eye out for its publication date!

Linda Hepworth 4/4

Nucleus by Rory Clements
Zaffre 9781785763717 hbk Jan 2018

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