Wednesday, December 9, 2015

GadgetGadget by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A gadget is physicists' jargon for a nuclear device: a playful and harmless word for what we would call an atomic bomb."
(From the Author's Note.)

The thirty-seventh book by Nicolas Freeling that I am reviewing here! Only four remaining to read; what will I do with my life? While Gadget (1977), being a straightforward thriller, is a little unusual entry from my favorite crime/mystery author, it has been even more unusual for me because for almost half of the book I did not like it too much. I found the first two parts, out of five, boring, implausible, charmless, and - what would seem inconceivable for the author known for his stellar prose - not that well written, particularly the artificial sounding, stilted dialogues. Of course, I would never dream of not finishing a book by Mr. Freeling, so I plodded forward. And lo! At about the 40% mark the novel suddenly picked up and became quite readable.

Jim Hawkins, an American physicist working in a German nuclear institute, is kidnapped by terrorists, along with his wife and two young daughters. The captors - terrorists of a rather atypical variety - want him to produce the Gadget, a small nuclear device, that they want to explode to achieve their goals. They have managed to steal the necessary quantity of highly enriched uranium, they have collected all needed parts, and the only thing they are missing is the know-how. Mr. Hawkins is diligently working on assembling the device, and things keep looking up for the captors, but suddenly... a piercing scream can be heard in the terrorists' well-equipped lab, and at about page 100 the plot becomes really interesting.

While in most thrillers the descriptions and explanations of science are ridiculously botched, the situation is not that bad here: the fragments presenting the mechanics of the Gadget sound plausible (I have had some exposure to theoretical physics), although there are probably too many details, and they are accompanied by overly simplistic calculations. Rather unexpectedly for a book written by a master of psychological crime drama, it is the psychology that does not have enough depth and lacks plausibility in the first half - only in the first half - of the novel.

Oh, but how can I not like the mention of PDP-11/40. I used to work on PDP-11 series computers in the late 1970s, at about the time the novel was published. These were wonderful times for scientific computing: no Internet, no Facebook, just the real stuff.

To sum up: the topic of terrorism is perhaps even more relevant these days than 40 years ago, and save for its first 40% the book is a good read - truly a nail-biting thriller in latter parts - with a splendid, powerful ending. Not my kind of Freeling, though.

Two stars.

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