This enjoyable, fast-paced thriller moves between two timelines. In 1983 Lieutenant Bill Guth is assistant weapons officer on USS Alexander Hamilton, a nuclear submarine on exercise three hundred feet beneath the Norwegian Sea. Cold War tensions are increasing, and the crew is used to simulating various disaster scenarios, including the one they all dread, the order to trigger a nuclear attack. When Bill decodes a seemingly genuine order to launch a full nuclear strike against the USSR, he is prepared to do his duty. However, doubts begin to creep in when anxieties are expressed about the fact that the order is identical to one used for a recent training exercise. Surely orders are orders… but what if it really is an erroneous message? Ultimately a disastrous crisis is ultimately averted, but in the process one crew member dies.
In 2019 Bill is living in London but he and his late wife had also bought a cottage on the North Norfolk coast and it is here that he and his four daughters and their partners have gathered, as they do every year, to celebrate Thanksgiving. Bill has agreed to be interviewed that afternoon by Sam Bowen, an historian who wants to talk to him about his time in the navy in the 1980s, although he’s warned the historian that there’s a limit to what he can share, that much of what happened during his naval career remains classified. Inevitably, the subject Sam wants to investigate is how close the world came to a full-scale nuclear war on that November day in 1983. Frustrating Sam’s attempts to discover the facts of what happened on the submarine, Bill refused to elaborate but, wanting to be sociable, did invite the historian to return in the evening to share in the family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Later that night, Sam is brutally murdered, triggering an intensive police investigation, with suspicion focusing on the family.
Moving with impressive assurance between the two timescales, the author gradually revealed what really did happen in 1983, the repercussions of which continue to echo down through the years, still affecting family relationships and friendships in 2019. It soon becomes clear that there are people who will do anything to ensure that the secrets of the past will not be exposed, and it isn’t long before the lives of some of the characters are in danger. It also becomes clear that Bill and his late wife had their own secrets and that some aspects of their family life had been based on a web of lies, a web which begin to unravel during the investigations into Sam’s death, with the inevitable unearthing of unpalatable truths which this brings. I thought that the author convincingly captured the effects this had on each of Bill’s daughters as they struggled to reconcile the united family they thought they’d had, with all the withholding and dishonesty which had underpinned it. Each of the daughters has been affected, albeit in different ways, and as the facts emerge, long-held sibling rivalries and resentments are exposed, and the sisters are forced to confront their own behaviour. I thought that these tensions, conflicts and resolutions were characterised in an effective, recognisable (if you have siblings!) and credible way.
There were times when I found myself intensely disliking the present-day Bill, but as his history was gradually revealed, showing the struggles he had experienced with conflicting pulls between feelings of loyalty and duty to the navy and his country, his moral and ethical dilemmas about the use of nuclear weapons and his responsibilities to the people he loved, I was able to feel a little more empathy with him! Through the flashbacks the reader discovers the history of his loving, but complex, relationship with his late wife, and the part she played in what happened not only in the 1980s, but also in the intervening years. Although this is a key part of the plot, it’s hard to say too much without including spoilers!
I enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions which conveyed some idea of what it must be like to spend months submerged underwater in a submarine, always conscious of the need to keep noise to a minimum in order to avoid detection by the enemy. Although I’ve never experienced anything like this, it seems to me that the lack of space, the claustrophobia, the living cheek-by-jowl with fellow submariners would be enough on their own to create tension, without all the extra stress of the fear that you could be responsible for starting a nuclear war – a certain degree of paranoia would seem to be a quite “healthy” reaction to this combination of pressures! However, I am very familiar with the coastal areas of North Norfolk and think that the author captured the wide-open spaces, and the huge skies of this part of the country in a recognisably evocative way – what a huge contrast to the claustrophobic conditions on the submarine!
From start to finish, the story was full of twists and turns and although I’d guessed many of them, this didn’t seem to matter because the story-telling was so good, with tension being relentlessly ratcheted-up until the final dénouement. I think that had I noticed this novel in a bookshop, the rather “gung-ho” cover would almost certainly have put me off buying it so I’m very pleased that I was given a copy to review because, not only is it a well-written story, but it’s also a very thought-provoking one. It was clear that the author had researched nuclear submarines and the elaborate, cross-checking procedures put in place to prevent someone accidentally (or maliciously!) triggering the launch of nuclear weapons. However, as his research demonstrated, systems and procedures can, and do, fail and that is when human beings need to be brave enough to ignore orders and override erroneous messages, to ensure that the nuclear button isn’t pressed by accident … lots of themes here for group discussion!
Linda Hepworth 4/4
Launch Code by Michael Ridpath
Corvus 9781786496997 pbk Nov 2019