Agatha Christie in space!
Okay that’s not quite what The Apollo Murders is, and no doubt real-life Canadian author Chris Hadfield, who has made quite a name for himself in recent years with great space-centric non fiction reads, might wonder how you might shoehorn Miss Marple into a spacesuit and find space for a cast of eccentrically possibly guilty characters in a small reusable capsule.
In truth the author’s foray into fiction is a gripping Cold War thriller set in an alternate 1973 where the US and USSR remain locked in a battle for space supremacy but in a way that is different to what actually took place during this time (though much of the fictional extrapolation have strong roots in actual events and feature actual players on the space race stage at the time).
Drawing on his considerable experience as an astronaut, which lends even the more outlandish parts of The Apollo Murders an air of believable credibility, Hadfield invests the novel with the feel of a slow-burn thriller as simmering tensions about who will get to a bounty on the Moon boil over into a deadly race to the prize.
In this slice of alternate history, the USA hasn’t curtailed the Apollo missions quite as early as it actually did with Apollo 18 actually going ahead – in reality missions 18 and 19 were cut due to budgetary constraints – and one last trio of men are off to the lunar surface to take samples and boldly go where only a handful of people have ever gone before.
“As he watched the experts create one malfunction after another for the crew to deal with – before the launch, it was crucial that Tom, Luke and Michael see all the possible things that could go wrong and learn how to deal with them – he felt a little rueful that he was about to throw them the biggest mission curve ball ever.” (P. 18)
So far, so spatially exploratory.
What adds some spice to this race to this last excursion to the Moon is the sudden death of one key player in the mission, a man whose possible murder raises all kinds of questions about who exactly has ended up on Apollo 18.
While Houston flight controller Kaz Zemeckis, upon whose life and expertise much of the story skillfully rests, is doing his best to protect the crew, safeguard the mission and herd more variables than any one person should have to deal with in the course of a week or so, the Soviets are trying to keep some big secrets nice and quiet while stopping the Americans from uncovering them.
All of this Cold War argy-bargy means that what starts out as a “simple” mission to the Moon soon becomes anything but with a breathtakingly impressive array of complications creeping in and, of course the titular murders, all of which add to making this mission nothing like just another day in the NASA office.
Much of the pleasure that comes from reading The Apollo Murders flows from the unhurried time Hadfield takes to tell his story; while things go almost too slowly in the first third or so of the book, and there is sometimes a little too much detail for a mere non-astronaut mortal, the novel by and large has just the right balance between action, character development and slow-burning build-up.
Murder most foul may not in and of itself be something to glory in but the way Hadfield uses it to explore the mystery and beauty of space, the searing tensions of Cold War activities which never came without an agenda of some kind, and the different ways in which people will approach a given situation.
He also winningly explores how prejudice and a lack of empathy and understanding can add unnecessary complexity to already charged situations, revealing that where a spirit of cooperation might yield dividends, many people instead choose to engage in competition and rivalry.
Perhaps that is part and parcel of what makes us human but in the context of the events of The Apollo Murders it often spells possibly ruin and near disaster, and much of the demarcation between characters comes from whether they try to work for the betterment of things or for their own personal or national interests.
To be fair, there are more of the latter than the former but Kaz stands out right through the novel as a decent man of strong ideals but practical execution who understands that while national rivalries are something he has no choice but to navigate, he must always keep an eye on what’s good for the crew and the mission overall, all other considerations aside.
“But Kaz was thinking beyond the investigation. He was going to have to tell Sam Phillips that the man who was about to walk on the Moon, to find out what the Soviets were up to there, was now a viable suspect in a murder.” (P. 260)
It’s the innate decency and surety of knowledge and experience of the lead characters that grants The Apollo Murders so much of the humanity that drives it.
Packed full of alternate ideas on actual people, places and events, The Apollo Murders is less about the various murders, which don’t dominate the narrative anyway, and more about what drives people to commit them or cover them up or inadvertently kill in the pursuit of pressing national and personal goals.
This highly readable, quietly immersive novel is not really a whodunnit in the conventional sense – sorry Agatha but no multiple Gs pressure on the launch pad for you – but rather an engaging novel that weaves murder into an overall thrilling tale of bitter Cold War rivalry and the sage implications of realpolitik.
Far form being a dry telling of myriad space exploration facts, The Apollo Murders benefits from Hadfield’s overall ability to use details to aid the story and not simply have the story exist in order to cram facts into it.
This is a near-perfect alternate historical novel because it understands that while facts about the American missions to the Moon and the Russians’ attempts to send spying space stations into orbit as inordinately fascinating, and the people at the heart of these efforts are captivatingly larger-than-life, they only matter because of the humanity that gives them meaning and purpose, dubious in worth though they might be.
The Apollo Murders is a mostly well-balanced mix of alternate history and real life endeavours, of thrilling narrative punctuation points and vividly-realised characters, that draws you in with its slow boil of a first half before racing to a highly improbable but weirdly believable finale which underscores once again that while action grabs our attention to begin with, it’s the people that keep it in place and which make every story compelling and memorable, not just when they take place but down through the years that follow.