Critical Mass–a massive mystery and modicum of Lab Lit

Now that I have published “A Degree of Betrayal” and am officially a writer of a mystery novel–even if it is not purely a genre novel–I am actively devouring all types of mystery novels. So please, I welcome suggestions!

I began to read adult books at an early age; too early perhaps, because my family finds that I have serious gaps in the realm of young adult books and children’s classics. That’s hard to overcome, because I don’t anticipate returning to fill in those gaps any time soon.

In about 3rd grade (8-9 years old) I began reading my first adult books. I read an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery, and then bulldozed through the next ~50 Agatha Christie novels in a short span. I moved on to historical fiction of the Michener type, and from there it’s been almost exclusively literary fiction for the past ~40 years. So until the last few years, I have led a sheltered literary existence with regards to mystery novels. However, of recent I have found a number of outstanding authors who write mysteries that are truly literary fiction–the mystery may enhance the story, but the writing is so good that I can hardly call them ‘genre books.’

One such author is Sara Paretsky, whose PI (private investigator as opposed to principal investigator in the Lab Lit world) creation is V.I. Warshawski, a determined feminist detective whose loyalty to her clients and the truth–and unwillingness to yield to the privileged and corrupt–sets her apart from other detectives.

I have enjoyed reading through most of Ms. Paretsky’s novels and am continually amazed at the wealth of characters she brings to life, and their stories. She does not shy away from any topic, and at least two of her novels return to World War II and the Holocaust. In her most recent novel, Critical Mass, she again returns to aspects of Holocaust as a central theme in her book. But from a very unique angle.

I do not intend to do a book review of Critical Mass, because: 1) I haven’t completed the novel, and 2) It is simply outstanding and no review will do it justice. In fact, one of the reasons I am getting through it so slowly is because there are so many threaded bits of interesting information on the nuclear physicists of the time, fictional as well as real ones, such as the great Fermi and others, that I find myself continually putting the book down–reluctantly–and searching online for more background information.

An important part of the novel deals with Uranverein, the German program to develop nuclear weapons during WWII. Jews may have been inferior beings that needed to be gassed to death en masse to prevent their contamination of Europe, but a number of them were apparently kept alive–just barely, being starved and beaten–explicitly to advance the German goal of obtaining nuclear weapons.

The history of the Uranverein, and why the Germans–with such a head start and brilliant theoretical physicists (led by Heisenberg)–made such little progress (fortunately) is fascinating. Although it has been claimed that Heisenberg perhaps did not want the Nazis to obtain a nuclear weapon, some scientists and science historians such as Jeremy Bernstein–who wrote “Hitler’s Uranium Club-The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall,” were not convinced. Bernstein’s take on the matter was apparently more in line with the idea that although Heisenberg claimed he did try to use his position to find out about the fate of a number of Jewish scientists, the main reason for lack of progress was that he was primarily a theoretician who lacked experience leading a big project. I guess the Uncertainty Principle applies here…

It is clear that there was a tremendous race at the war’s end by the western allies to round up the top German scientists–engineers and rocket scientists, as well as nuclear scientists–before the Russians got to them. It is also clear that some of these scientists and engineers–as much as they have have pretended–were more complicit with the Nazis and Nazi crimes than they may have needed to be. In other words–and I have no doubt of Ms. Paretsky’s accuracy on this issue–they may have identified with and relished Nazi treatment of Jews far more than was needed strictly to stay alive and out of trouble in the course of the war.

As always, and as a central theme in Paretsky novels: those with advantaged backgrounds, money and power are often adept at twisting the truth to resist responsibility. As an underdog myself, I identify with Ms. Paretsky 100%.


About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
This entry was posted in research, science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Critical Mass–a massive mystery and modicum of Lab Lit

  1. If you don’t mind retro and a bit of romance too, I can strongly recommend the Dorothy Sayers series “Strong Poison”, “Have His Carcase”, “Gaudy Night” and “Busman’s Honeymoon”. Lord Peter Wimsey is an amazing character.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    I actually have read some of The Lord Wimdey series, including Gaudy Night, but haven’t read some of the ones you listed. Good suggestion!

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    There’s much more out in the public domain than just the “Farm Hall” transcripts; unfortunately basic Google isn’t particularly good at sifting out the rubbish so use Google Scholar with the terms “Physics Today” and your preferred search terms (I used “atom bomb”, but names should be good as well). If your institution has a subsription to AIP (the American Institute of Physics) their journal “Physics Today” should be in the library. The atom bomb story that would have to be told as fiction is how the Israelis got it.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. In my novel ‘By The Sea’ I based D. I. Sheepwool and D. S. Fitch on, respectively, Morse and Lewis.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I like Vi Warshawski, too. I have only read two of them. I’ve just finished ‘Burn Marks’ (the sixth one), and a long time ago I read one in which she went on some jaunt across the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay. Which one’s that?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Had to look that one up–it’s Deadlock. I haven’t read it, but am adding it to my short list. Growing up in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay always intrigued me.

  6. My dad was a big fan of Paretsky’s books, so have read a fair few of them at the French holiday retreat (where such volumes tend to fetch up). Can’t say they really spoke to me, though a decent read… but not read the one Steve refers to, which sounds interesting.

    The post-war ‘Operation Paperclip’ scramble to spirit the German scientists away is not an episode in which the West covered itself in glory, to put it mildly, though it was perhaps inevitable in terms of the Cold War. For people of my age the exemplar for the never-really-addressed Nazi associations of the scientists was rocket maestro Werner Von Braun, immortalized (if that’s the word) in a short but telling satirical song by Tom Lehrer:

    On Heisenberg, the most interesting dramatised version of what he might or mightn’t have done or thought is Michael Frayn’s play ‘Copehagen’, an imagining of the (real) meeting between Heisenberg and his former mentor Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. There was a good TV play/movie version as well, which might be around on the net somewhere.

    • Sorry, would have added some more links there but it would probably have got spam-filtered.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Having completed “Critical Mass” now, I do think it’s a cut above many of Ms. Paretsky’s other books–which I also enjoyed. She does not claim to teach or preach about historical events, but that’s the brilliance in fiction: I had heard and read many accounts of the von Braun stories and Operation Paperclip, but somehow the fiction really brings certain human aspects to life in a way that the dry facts often can’t do. The fact that it spurred me to look up and read into these events–even superficially for now–is a testament to the author’s talent.

      Watching the Lehrer song, which I had neither seen nor heard of, I couldn’t help thinking that the British were/are definitely more sensitive to forgiving Nazi transgressions because of the suffering during WWII. The Americans, on the other hand, safely out of the rocket’s range, found it much easier to “forgive” and use anything in their power to address the next challenge in the cold war.

      • I think that is broadly right, Steve. There was a lot of visceral anger in Britain at Hitler and his commanders for the night bombing campaigns against London (the Blitz) and Coventry early in the war, and latterly for the V-1 and V-2 campaigns, all of which had been squarely targetted at killing civilians. Revenge for this was partly why the RAF fire-bombed the German cities later in the war. There was clearly a strong sense after the war that Nazism had green-lighted all sorts of atrocities, and that Nazis and Nazism should be publicly held to account. This was across the political spectrum, coming as strongly from Churchill and the right as from the left.

        I suspect there was also a good bit less ‘incipient cold war’ suspicion of the Russians immediately post-war in the UK than in the US, partly since Churchill (who was pretty much as anti-Communist as the Americans) had been replaced as Prime Minister by Attlee. Attlee’s Labour Govt was full of people who had been Trades Unionists, an environment where communism (and even the Soviet Union) was not regarded as anathema in the way it was by the right and the Americans. There would also have been wide popular sympathy in the UK for the tremendous sacrifices the Russian people had made in the war. I suspect it wasn’t until the Berlin Blockade in 1948, which necessitated the Berlin Airlift, that mass opinion on the Soviet Union would have begun to turn sour.

        • Laurence Cox says:


          I suggest you get your facts right before you go into print. See

          Fire-bombing of cities was a result of the Air Ministry realising that they couldn’t hit any targets of military significance because their navigation wasn’t accurate enough. In contrast, the Germans’ use of radio beams for navigation was pretty accurate; their target in Coventry was not the centre but the car factories that were about two miles away (at that time British night bombers were only getting 20% of their bombs within five miles of the target). RV Jones’ book “Most Secret War” tells the story of the beams and how countermeasures to them were developed.

          The embarrassment that Churchill and others felt over the policy towards the end of the war when it was obvious that Germany was going to be defeated was one of the main reasons why the aircrew in Bomber Command were not recognised with a campaign medal (and there was not even a memorial to them until a few years ago).

          • Hi Laurence.

            My version is the sort of received view from my late father, who lived through the Blitz as a youth, but you are right that I have not read the scholarly works on the subject.

            Happy to bow to your greater knowledge of the sources, but I do note that the wording of the RAF ‘Area Bombing Directive(s)’ quoted e.g. here does refer several times to ‘degrading the morale of the enemy civil population and workers’. Whatever the behind-the-scenes technical story, there was certainly widespread popular anger in Britain about the Blitz, Coventry and the V-weapons, all seen as attacks on civilians, such that I doubt British wartime (or even immediately post-war) public opinion was much bothered about the implications of area bombing for the German population.

            The 1945 bombing of Dresden, is often quoted as a particularly egregious late example of area bombing of the kind Churchill and co were, as you say, later embarrassed about. What do the more recent accounts, presumably informed by de-classified memos, reveal about that one? Is it similar to what the Wikipedia entry says?

          • Laurence Cox says:

            In my case, experience came from living in Coventry from 1950-1966. My father worked in a car factory there throughout his working life, apart from the war years when he flew as a navigator in Mosquito and Stirling bombers. If you look at Google Earth for Coventry, you will see that there is a 1945 aerial photograph that shows the damage. Two of the car factories: Alvis (52deg 24′ 44″ N, 1deg 31′ 46″ W) and Standard-Triumph (52deg 24′ 00″ N, 1deg 33′ 06″ W) were within two miles of the centre along the bombers’ route. Translate the devastation in the centre to the Standard-Triumph site and you can see that there would not have been much left of it.

  7. Back to Steve’s original request… Agatha Christie of course. Murder on the Orient Express is the classic, but there are many others. Hercule Poirot may be a bit of a cartoon character, but the sneakiness of the plots and details of the setup to the reveal more than make up for it.

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’m not usually all that into mystery novels, but I absolutely loved “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson. There are a few more in the series, featuring the same detective, but CH was the first and the best by miles.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I am ordering Kate Atkinson’s “Case Histories” from my local library! Thanks!

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Cool! If you like it, I would recommend trying her debut novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”, before any of her other stuff. It’s one of my favourite novels of all time, and for added bonus points is set in the town I grew up in. It even mentions someone I’ve met! (the headmistress of the school where the main character goes, which is where my Dad used to teach. So the character mentioned in the book under her real name was his boss!)

Comments are closed.