So, if you had to pick someone to write a Crime Thriller about astronauts and space missions in the late 1960s, during the Cold War, who would you pick? Someone who can write, who has done a good job of communicating their thoughts, and who has the experience and qualifications to write with authority. There are not that many people like that around, but Chris Hadfield, test pilot, engineer, and astronaut (retired), is one. He is Canadian – how delightful! And he is handsome, he is a musician, he is keenly insightful, and he is witty. Need I go on? This man is an all-round over-achiever, and after he retired he wrote his first novel, The Apollo Murders – published just last month. So, has Chris Hadfield excelled yet again?
The setting of the novel fits exactly with Hadfield’s areas of expertise as a former astronaut, and his unusual life and career. It starts in 1968, and is set against the background of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, in particular the Space Race between the two nations, which kicked off in 1955. The Space Race was a phase of the Space Age, which the United States won when the manned Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Module “Eagle” landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. The last “Apollo Mission” to the moon was NASA’s Apollo 17, which successfully landed on the moon on December 7, 1972. So, the Apollo 18 program in the book is an invention, but totally authentic-sounding.
The details in the novel show that Hadfield wrote from personal experience. Every description rings true, from the technical details of space flight, to the characterization of the astronauts, and of course, the business of flying:
At the back of the book in the “Author’s Note”, Hadfield lists the real people that he has included as characters, and the actual events and facts on which the story is based. As he says in the epigraph: “Many of these people are real. Much of this actually happened.” It is very realistic, but still, it is Fiction. It is Crime Thriller and thus has to be critiqued as such.
Unusual deaths and murders
At first, I misread the title. I thought it was “The Apollo Murder” until I got to murder no. 3 and realized, it’s “murders“. The rather unusual murders connected with the “Apollo 18” mission to the moon are described in forensic detail. Like the deaths, the plot buildup and climax are depicted in an exact, comprehensive way, as only an actual astronaut would be able to – names, acronyms, titles, places, routes, protocols, bodies (I’m talking body parts and pooping paraphernalia, people!), equipment, sensations, perceptions, the works.
For example, whenever there is a catastrophic event, Hadfield identifies the cause as a small, seemingly unrelated element: when flying ace “‘Kaz’ Zemeckis” (mentioned in the first quotation), one of the protagonists, loses an eye in an accident, it is due to one bird hitting his plane dead-on. When the communications system on the Apollo mission packs up, it is due to a tiny drop of loose solder floating about in the zero gravity inside. The covert communications between an astronaut and an enemy spy agency is identified only by an insignificant, double-beep signal. Small things, but critical in long chains of actions and decisions.
Everything hangs together precisely and correctly. There are no plot-holes. Hadfield had obviously mapped everything out in the same meticulous way as he had shaped the settings and the characters.
What happens next?
But you have to ask an important question, as you would about any thriller: Does it make the reader want to know what happens next? I’d say it does. I guess that Hadfield had also plotted out the solution to a premise along these lines: How can a murder be committed on a space ship while on a mission? What if…? What could kill you in outer space?
The answer, which is core to the narrative, is that regardless of inventiveness and creativity, the essence of what could go wrong or right lies in the preparation for, and execution of a mission. A successful mission, whether in outer space, in the air, or on another planet, depends on those involved practicing the procedures for every conceivable eventuality a hundred times over, year after year after year, and then rigorously sticking to those. Anything that had not been conceived, any deviation from the procedures, even just a millisecond of inattention, a misdirection, or one wrong move, and all hell bursts loose. And under those circumstances, a murder could occur.
This lesson is one about which Hadfield has written before, in his memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. I have read it, and I recognized his ideas about ingenuity and (endless) preparation in the novel.
The growing realization that all these processes, checks and procedures are the frames for critical events, made me go on reading and kept me paying attention. I wanted to know what happens next and what will go wrong next. I wanted to understand why.
I had finished reading the chapter about the landing on the moon, and got so tensed up about the episode (which has an uncomfortably claustrophobic atmosphere – small spaces, a slippery-sided pit, and a corpse…) that I cheated and paged forward until I could see that all had not been lost.
Space travel is a matter of life and death, and was especially so during the early days of space exploration when at times things were pretty hands-on and mechanical, so each decision and action in the story has that gravity and potential for disaster, which makes the reader feel suspense. The climax of the story does not take place on the moon, the target that everyone had been aiming for, but back down on earth. But that does not make the situation any less risky: there is lots of vomiting, blood, knifings, mind-bending fear, and drownings.
In the end (without giving away the plot) the most unlikely candidate, an outlier, has the last, scornful laugh. The character “Kaz”, though the hero type, is more of a device that serves as an omniscient narrator and whose movements and ideas tie everything together. The novel starts and ends with him.
Although the mission ends with a neat plot twist, one of the reveals in the subsequent final chapter is even better, but if you were not paying attention you might miss it. It has to do with the mineral that is discovered on the moon, which causes everyone involved to go crazy over its economic and military prospects. (That is another factoid that Hadfield mentions in the “Author’s Note” in the book.)
Upcoming: Part 2 of this review
These aspects are not the only ones worth mentioning about The Apollo Murders. In the next post, I will make my final comments and my conclusions about the novel’s badness goodness, meaningfulness and general worthiness. Keep an eye out!