Genre: Alternative History/Thriller
Publication Date: 12/10/2021
The year is 1973. With the Soviet union on the verge of seizing a military advantage, the United States steps up its own space programme. Apollo 18 will go to the Moon, and ensure that the Soviet endeavour falls short . . .
Pilot, astronaut, singer, children’s author. It was only a matter of time before man-of-many-talents Chris Hadfield turned his hand to a novel for adult readers. Similarly inevitable is the involvement of the space programme in his fiction. After all, who hasn’t heard the adage ‘write what you know.’ And from the very first page of The Apollo Murders, it’s clear that Hadfield knows his stuff very well indeed. There is a depth here that only someone who has spent their life in the aerospace business could bring. Insider knowledge that takes this book to stunning heights.
Hadfield’s debut is a thriller set at the height of the Cold War, weaving fiction and history together so seamlessly that you’ll be left wondering how much of it actually happened. Helpfully, Hadfield includes an afterword detailing some of the real people and events that feature in the book. But don’t skip ahead to this. Not knowing what is real and what is fiction is half the fun. When a book hews this closely to true history, it makes the whole story feel much more feel, and thus more compelling. This delightful confusion is aided in no small measure by Hadfield’s style. His prose is crisp and clear, and though I don’t read a whole lot of thrillers, it’s as direct and adrenaline-fuelled a any Jack Reacher novel you might see in the airport.
What really sells it though, is the number of characters. Just as it takes hundred of people working diligently to send a man to space, so is Hadfiel’s story carried on dozens of shoulders. At first, this did throw me off. The prologue is told in the first person, while the rest is in third. At first it seemed as though we’d be following Kaz’s story, but he was soon drowned in the larger operations of the Apollo 18 mission. We get the perspectives of astronauts, ground teams, spies, government officials, and the Soviet counterparts of them all. If I didn’t know this was a novel, I’d be tempted to call the style documentary. In one brief scene we follow an engineer whose single sneeze disrupts a key piece of equipment. In another we ride along with a helicopter pilot in the last few moments before tragedy. Unique among modern novels, there is no single character driving this narrative. The Apollo Murders is, like all things space-related, a team effort.
But none of this is to say the characters aren’t compelling. I’ve already mentioned Kaz, and he is a sturdy presence upon which much of the book hangs. It’s through his eye that we see the ground team working, and he is also the one giving the most thought to the murders of the title. With a massive cast of characters split across US and Soviet personnel, the standout character is Chad. He may not be a likeable man, but Chad is one of the best-written characters I have ever come across. I read The Apollo Murders as a buddy read with two other readers, and it was Chad who had us talking the most.
I have to say though, for a book with murders in the title, the focus is much more on espionage than on killing, and the book is richer for it. The murder aspect is largely left to the action on the ground, even when many of the suspects are in space. And it’s in space that the book really shines. Never has a space-walk been so tense. I read a lot of military SF, and The Apollo Murders still steals the crown of the best space combat I have ever read. It’s vivid, clinically brutal, and you can feel the personal experience that informs it all.
One warning I would give prospective readers, is that this is a very fact-heavy book. Hadfield loves describing technology and official procedures. I’m not sure when I last saw so many facts and figure sin the pages of a novel, but it’s been a while. For me, this added an extra level of immersion. Just one more detail that added to the crunchy goodness of the book. But it’s not a style that will work for everyone, so it’s something to be aware of as you start reading.
For me personally, I can’t think of a flaw with The Apollo Murders. It is a standout debut and an incredible feat of alternative historical fiction. I don’t know if Hadfield plans to write more books in a similar vein, but I do know I’ll be racing to get a copy if he does.