Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath
This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.
Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.
The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:
Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.
Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986
We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.
Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense
I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.