Bantam Press | 2019 (3 October) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book
It is 1961 and the Cold War rages between the Soviet Union and the United States, fueled not only by the space race but also by the competition to dominate the technology of nuclear war. Arzamas-16 has been established as the centre for the Soviet Union’s nuclear research and it is there in this secret, closed city that Soviet and German scientists develop weapons of mass destruction. Just days before the biggest nuclear bomb ever built is due to be tested in the atmosphere above the frozen north, one of the key scientists involved in its development is found dead, murdered by radiation poisoning. The murder shakes the Kremlin to its core and so Major Alexander Vasin of the Special Cases branch of State Security is sent to investigate. He finds a secretive, privileged community of scientists, soldiers, police and their families and not one of them wants to help Vasin’s investigation. But Vasin has no choice but to dig and to stir, uncovering secrets, upsetting people, while all the time trying to keep his own secrets safe. Meanwhile, the countdown to the detonation of the Armageddon bomb continues.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union. I visited it a couple of times and I’ll never forget it. And so I’m drawn to novels, especially thrillers, about life, politics and crime behind the Iron Curtain. Black Sun was irresistible, not least because it’s based on a true story and that makes it absolutely terrifying. It shows so dramatically and effectively how close the world was to annihilation during those Cold War years and how the weight of this was carried on the shoulders of so few.
The novel contains a fair amount of detail about the science of nuclear technology but it isn’t daunting. Vasin is no expert and he is our witness. As he learns, so do we, and what he learns is incredible. But every bit as fascinating as the science is Arzamas-16 itself. Owen Matthews brings this real place to life with so much detail and colour. The people who live there are unusual. They live privileged lives, listen to banned music, wear banned clothes and eat, drink and smoke so much better than normal Soviet citizens. But they live secluded lives, shut away from the rest of the country by fences and guards. We see how this affects the wives perhaps more than the men. And when you have such a self-contained community, fueled by vodka and stress, passions can flare. Murder can happen.
I was particularly interested in how the legacy of the war and Stalin’s Great Purges affects these people. More than one served time on a Gulag, another survived the siege of Leningrad, another is a Nazi who experimented on people (now he has to make do with goats). It all adds up to a rich portrayal of a place in which emotions are complicated and life might be privileged, but it wasn’t always this way for many of the citizens, and then there’s the cloud of nuclear war that hangs over them all.
Vasin is an interesting character but we’re not allowed to get too close. This is in some ways quite a cold and clinical thriller. Not everything, not everyone, is black or white. It’s much more complicated than that. Vasin, like most characters in the book, isn’t entirely likeable and nor, I think would you expect him to be. He is a KGB officer, after all. But he does have a genuine desire to seek out the truth, which is no easy thing when most people have secrets, including Vasin, including the scientist who was killed. Although Black Sun is a cold thriller, set in a very cold place, it is extremely compelling and involving. More than anything, though, it is horrifying to learn about what was going on this most secret of places and how it could have had devastating consequences for us all.