‘A nail-biting cold-war thriller, set against the desperate Apollo mission that never really happened… or did it?’ – that’s how director James Cameron billed Chris Hadfield’s debut fiction novel, The Apollo Murders, which takes place amidst the final years of the Space Race and the fraught relations between America and the Soviet Union. It’s high praise and it’s entirely merited. Anyone who’s a fan of Hadfield’s non-fiction writing will know that he’s an exceptionally intelligent and accomplished pilot and astronaut, and now – thanks to this book – he can add successful novelist to his seemingly endless list of achievements.
The Apollo Murders begins with an American crew prepping for a flight to the moon. To the outside world, this is an awe-inspiring operation of interplanetary and geological importance but the three astronauts – Chad, Luke and Michael – have also been tasked with a secondary objective, a clandestine top-secret lunar assignment that pits them against their Soviet rivals. With the crew blasting into space, Houston flight controller Kazimieras ‘Kaz’ Zemeckis is our eyes and ears on the ground. After a suspicious death prior to take-off and further abnormalities as the crew embark on their mission, Kaz begins to suspect that not everyone on board Apollo 18 is quite who they appear to be. Suddenly, it’s not just the Russians who pose a threat to the NASA mission, and when you’re stuck in space, 250 million miles from home and 250 million miles from help, that’s a real problem.
For the first quarter of The Apollo Murders, I was worried this book might be too much of a slow burn. Hadfield’s experience as an astronaut gives him the ability to portray exactly what it’s like for a crew in the run-up to a space mission but the technical detail can be overwhelming for a space layman. Thankfully, when the spacecraft begins its ascent towards the moon, the tense, dangerous and claustrophobic nature of the situation starts to ramp up. Hadfield puts readers right there with the three American astronauts; we experience the way their bodies react to the change in atmosphere, we feel the awe and spikes of adrenaline as the countless simulations finally become a reality. Most importantly, we get a real, honest sense of the simultaneous responsibility and power they wrestle with, as they have to make life or death decisions with little time to think things through. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and the technical detail that felt so overwhelming at the beginning becomes the book’s biggest strength.
Whilst Kaz – an intriguing, smart and self-deprecatingly likeable character – initially seems as if he’ll be the book’s protagonist, The Apollo Murders actually moves constantly between earth and space, from the Americans to the Soviets, from the astronauts to the ground controllers to the heads of various intelligence agencies, which gives the book an even more expansive feel – as if soaring through space on a time sensitive mission wasn’t vast enough. Hadfield captures the Cold War tensions perfectly, the anxiety and arrogance that radiates from both sides as they race to achieve dominance in space exploration and capability first. Yet he never forgets that this is ultimately a thriller and a good thriller needs to throw plenty of twists and turns at its readers, which this book does with cunning, intricate little curveballs that have the characters scratching their heads and scrambling to make sense of what’s really afoot.
Bolstered by Chris Hadfield’s intimate knowledge of space travel and his first-hand experience of what being an astronaut is really like, The Apollo Murders is a superior space thriller that has so much tension and suspense you’ll need to take a big, shaky breath when you reach the end.
The Apollo Murders was published by Quercus on 12 October 2021