JUNE 1939. The race is on to produce the first atomic bomb. Hitler’s generals need to know what’s going on in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. A Jewish scientist is allowed to escape from Germany with his physicist niece. Her small son is kidnapped on the train, and thereafter she is at their mercy.
An American academic, Tom Wilde, is tasked by President Roosevelt with reporting back on what is happening in England. His girlfriend, Lydia, charged with meeting Eva’s vanished child, goes to Berlin to look for him, and sees at first hand a line of Jews, desperate for visas, tormented by Hitler’s SA. In a Cambridge threatened by IRA bombers, one of Wilde’s college colleagues is murdered, and Wilde is drawn into the investigation. The world’s fate could rest on finding one small child.
This is not a book for players of Spot the Anachronism. If Clements says Billie Holliday was singing in New York when Wilde was there, she was. I checked. Against this pleasingly authentic backdrop, he handles his complex factual material deftly, seamlessly integrating fictional characters and real people. And he manipulates his plot like a potter working clay. A sudden tweak, your perceptions are altered, and you’re looking at a story of an entirely different shape.
You cannot help feeling at times that Wilde, with his taste for good whisky and Rudge motorbike, fighting off a glamorous film star’s advances, is Clements’s alter ego, the historian he would like to have been; and you wonder whether he has faced the same dilemma as the main characters have, of two determinedly individual people who want to be together, and struggle to find a way through.
This is even better than Wilde’s first outing, Corpus. If the upward trajectory continues, the next one will be very fine indeed.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.