Black Sun

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 06 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

The mystery seemed pretty standard, as far as murder mysteries go. Only the situations and materials involved are a bit more interesting due to the setting. I was engaged for most of the novel, but I felt the parts of the narrative were a bit dull (the flashbacks and seemingly endless walking around and noticing things). The setting seemed pretty authentic to Soviet life in the 60's. I don't know if I was supposed to like the main character very much. It is a bit hard to empathize with a KGB agent.

I really did like the ending, where KGB agent Vasin is being debriefed by his boss. Spot on.
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Published by Doubleday on July 23, 2019

Major Alexander Vasin is a former homicide investigator from the Moscow police who is now a KGB agent. In 1961, Vasin is sent to Arzamas-16, a city that does not officially exist, to investigate a physicist’s death. Fyodor Petrov was working on the development of a new bomb when he died from ingesting a radioactive substance. The local KGB pronounced the death a suicide. The Politburo is not convinced.

Vasin encounters obstacles as he investigates. Scientists proclaim themselves too busy to speak to him. The local KGB officer in charge insists that Vasin confirm the death as a suicide and go home. Yet there are secrets being kept and Vasin has been tasked by his boss in Moscow to uncover them. His mandate gives him power, but he suspects that he will be in danger if he pushes too far.

Vasin has a secret of his own, involving his boss’ wife. That secret seems destined to come out after Vasin's wife learns about his affair. If she doesn’t expose him directly, the fact that the KGB listens to every phone conversation in Russia may eventually be Vasin’s undoing.

The plot of Black Sun is built on intrigue, deception, and betrayal. The mystery — who killed Petrov and why? — is a good one. Owen Matthews sets up a range of suspects who might have a motive and places them against an overlapping backdrop of characters who have an incentive to send Vasin home with the crime unsolved. Any distraction from the goal of building and testing the ultimate weapon is unwelcome.

The retrospective look at the arms race is interesting not just for its potential impact on humanity, but because it immunized Soviet nuclear scientists from the constraints that governed the lives of most Soviet citizens. The scientists have access to “subversive” music and literature that are forbidden to most. The sense the scientists have of being a privileged and untouchable elite adds interest to Vasin’s investigation.  

Black Sun dramatizes the risks that politicians take with human lives when they order scientists to design and test nuclear weapons, risks that necessarily have unintended consequences, as the United States learned when it destroyed Bikini Atoll. The story, Matthews tells us in an afterword, is based on the reality of a bomb that Soviet scientists feared might set the world’s atmosphere on fire. A bomb with reduced power that the Soviets eventually tested shattered windows in countries 900 kilometers from the test site. The bomb’s inventor, Andrei Sakharov, lobbied the Soviet Union to enter into the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The characterization of Vasin as a man who believes himself to be a swamp dweller, undeserving of happiness, is suitable both to a noir novel and to the setting. The oppressive atmosphere of Soviet Russia pervades the story in chilling detail. Informers advance their careers by denouncing the innocent. Patriotism is measured by loyalty to people who hold power rather than loyalty to country. Survival depends on sacrificing principles. In a society where everything is relative, a world of lies where there is no room for moral purity, Vasin does his best to tell good lies that will make incremental improvements in the lives of those who are engulfed by Soviet darkness.

The story is tight and the resolution of the mystery is satisfying. Vasin finds a way to do justice (of a sort) without doing more harm than is necessary. Vasin has a bit in common with Arkady Renko and Bernie Gunther, two noir icons who pursue justice in unjust societies. If Vasin goes on to have a series of adventures behind the Iron Curtin — the next one is set up in the last chapter — the series will likely be one that Renko and Gunther fans will want to follow.

RECOMMENDED
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Yes- I recommend this book! (4.5 stars) Well-written, thought provoking, and ultimately disturbing- Black Sun is worth your time. Are you in the mood for an intelligent thriller? I know summer is usually beach book time- maybe time to read something that doesn't require too much thought. That isn't this book. Yes, its a fast paced thriller, set in 1960's Russia. But you will think as you are reading and as you finish the last page. 
Major Vasin of the KGB has to go to the city of Arzamas-16 to investigate a "suicide". Arzamas is an exception to Cold War Russia. A city where the work is so important and the men are so valued- they live above the usual Communist rules. "He was in a city that existed on no maps and had no address other than a post-box number. A city where Armageddon's engineers danced to Negro music." What a line. As Vasin tries to solve a possible murder that it seems no one in Arzamas wants him to solve, he realizes he is in a terrifying place. Where men rush to make a bomb so big it can kill the world- for the sheer power to have over the Cold War with the US. I learned a lot as I read this book- more about the nuclear race on the Russian side. How the fate of my parents'world rested in the hands of a few men. "Vasin, I commit the sin of science every day, I turn plowshares into swords." 
Read this book. It is a thought provoking read dressed as a thrilling murder mystery. 4.5 stars.
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A well written book that took me a little while to get into but in the end was worth the effort. Vasin is sent to a secret town in Russia that is building a bomb so powerful, it will make the thought of war unpalatable. He works the key players off each other and treads lightly as he works to uncover whether an apparent suicide was instead murder. He uncovers secrets and works to make sure him own secrets and kept hidden. A worthy read for those who like books from the Russian point of view about the start of the arms race. 
Thank you Owen Matthews, Netgalley and Doubleday Books for the ARC for my honest review.
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If you love books like "Gorky Park" by Martin Cruz Smith, then this book is for you.  I have read the Arkady Renko novels and this is so reminiscent of one.  There is the tension of constantly being watched by your comrades and the Cold War pressure of the Arms Race.  Our investigator is Major Alexander Vasin of State Security, Special Cases Branch.  Vasin was a former Moscow Police Detective and unlike most of his colleagues, he likes to get to the truth.  Some officers in the KGB and Police are only interested in quickly closing cases with the convenient answers.  Vasin digs into them for the detailed explanation.  

Vasin is sent to Arzamas to investigate the suicide of a prominent Party member's son.  Dr. Petrov was working on a new hydrogen bomb that will have a 100 megaton yield.  He is suddenly found dead in his apartment from exposure to a radioactive isotope.  While this the evidence points to suicide, Vasin is not convinced and has to tread lightly in this highly secretive city.  There is delicate balance of things that are tolerated in Arzamas and asking questions during a highly sensitive weapon's test taking place in ten days is not one of them.  I won't reveal any more of the plot so as not to spoil the fun.  Check it out! It's worth it.
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