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Spies and secrets in space – ‘The Apollo Murders’

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As a rule, I’m what you might call an omnivorous reader. My choices aren’t usually constrained by genre – I’ll read pretty much anything. That said, I do have certain types of book that I generally don’t pick up.

For instance, I don’t often get into jargon-heavy thrillers – the Tom Clancys and Clive Cusslers of the world. Just not my scene. I also tend to steer clear of fiction written by famous people who are not famous for being writers – I’ve been burned by too many vanity novels.

So the idea of a book that COMBINES those two things should be a hard no, right? Maybe so – but every rule has its exceptions.

“The Apollo Murders” (Mulholland Books, $28) is the fiction debut of decorated astronaut Chris Hadfield. It’s an alternate history of sorts, a reimagining of the Apollo 18 mission that is packed full of mystery and Cold War intrigue. It’s a new wrinkle to the space race in a world where it’s no longer about getting to space, but rather about controlling it.

Hadfield taps into his own experiences and vast knowledge base to craft a story that is absolutely overflowing with period-accurate detail while also offering up enough twists and turns to make for an engaging thriller. He blends real-life individuals with fictional creations to tell a tale rendered all the more compelling for its general plausibility.

The year is 1973. NASA is gearing up for another Apollo mission – Apollo 18. The three-man crew is scheduled to make a trip to the Moon. But while the world believes this to be yet another scientific expedition, the truth is something far more complex.

Flight director Kazimieras Zemeckis – known to most as Kaz – has been brought in to run the show for this latest mission. He’s a former astronaut, one who was poised to make a trip to space before a freak accident cost him an eye. His intellect and passion for space was undeterred however, leading him on a journey that led him to a PhD and stints serving with assorted U.S. intelligence and defense agencies. That unique skill set makes him an ideal fit to run this mission.

This military mission.

It has been determined that the Russians have made some impressive and heretofore secret advances. They’ve landed an unmanned rover on the lunar surface, where they have discovered … something. Something they’re very interested in. But even worse, they’ve put a spy satellite in orbit, a satellite that, when properly manned, will be able to gain incredibly damaging intelligence on their American adversaries.

And so, shrouded in secrecy, Kaz must help this trio of military men-turned-astronauts prepare for the most dangerous mission of their lives, a mission that will take them hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Out into the void, into the harshest possible environment, a place where the smallest technical error can result in instant, horrible death, all to maintain their country’s tenuous lead in the space race.

But as the date of the mission approaches, it turns out that there are far more factors at play than anyone could have expected. And when you’re in the blackness of space, with your life in the hands of others … what if you don’t really know what those others are truly capable of?

“The Apollo Murders” is a fun read. While I generally eschew these sorts of spec-loaded books, I am happy to make exceptions when the circumstances warrant. And in case you were wondering – when the guy laying out the vintage space jargon is an actual astronaut, the circumstances warrant.

Space nerds are going to be enthralled; Hadfield goes deep on the various and sundry details of early ‘70s space technology – on BOTH sides. It can admittedly feel like a bit much; very few stones are left unturned with regard to the equipment being utilized. Occasionally, the narrative loses some steam in the face of the wave of tech specs, but only occasionally.

Most of the time, Hadfield’s solid storytelling sense keeps things moving. The plot features its fair share of twists, developing taut thrills as it goes. The historical accuracy is also a huge factor, serving as a sort of shorthand that elevates the stakes; we move from Houston to Moscow to space throughout, with every stop offering another piece of the puzzle. Plus, Hadfield does a good job of making sure that characters both real and fictional are given genuine development and thoughtful motivations. All of that comes together to create an engaging and entertaining picture.

Now, there are some issues here as well. As mentioned before, the book can get bogged down in minutiae. There’s a romantic subplot of sorts that feels a bit shoehorned in and a couple of developments that read as a touch far-fetched, particularly when so much of the book feels so grounded in reality. And the book’s climax and conclusion come extremely fast – perhaps a bit too fast to land with fully realized impact. Still – all relatively minor concerns with what is overall a delightful read.

“The Apollo Murders” is great fun. Sure, it’s a jargon-riddled thriller by a famous person, but it’s an incredibly good example of that – good enough to help me get over myself and my admitted snobbery. If you’re someone with an interest in space history or someone who digs thrillers or someone who just digs a straight-up adventure, strap in – Chris Hadfield is going to take you to the Moon and back.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 07:33

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