V2 by Robert Harris (Hutchinson, Sept 2020)
I have tended to prefer Robert Harris’ World War II thrillers, Enigma and Munich, over his other books and now he has a new military thriller to add to the mix, V2.
Set over a five day period at the end of November 1944, it is an engrossing read about the British attempts to stop the V2 attacks on London. Seen through the eyes of two fictional characters, V2 ballistic missile scientist Rudi Graf and WAAF officer Kay Caton-Walsh, it shows the mounting frustration on both sides as the war heads towards a bloody conclusion.
Graf, a childhood friend of Wernher von Braun, is one of the chief architects of the V2 missiles. Initially motivated by Braun’s dream of sending a rocket to the moon, Graf now finds himself in a bleak seaside town in occupied Holland overseeing the firing of the deadly rockets towards London. Haunted by personal tragedy and disillusioned by the war, he is reluctant to be part of Hitler’s demand for ten thousand rockets to be built and sent towards the enemy, but he is being watched by an enthusiastic Nazi Party commissar on the lookout for treason and waning spirits.
Meanwhile after enduring a V2 strike herself, Kay joins a WAAF unit dispatched to the newly liberated Belgium. Their mission is to locate the V2 launch pads by observing the launch of the first missile and then using mathematical formula to work out where it came from, so that Spitfires can attack the site before the second missile can be launched: “‘The first rocket will hit London in five minutes. You have six minutes to stop the second.'”
Adding complexity and some suspense to the story are a possible spy undermining the British efforts and the Nazi hunt for a traitor amongst the ranks of the scientists.
This is a slow burn of a war thriller. Apart from some vivid descriptions of the horror of the V2 strikes, the first 100 pages or so proceed at a leisurely pace while Harris sets up the various strands of his story. The rest of the book is much brisker, as the tension mounts on both sides and Graf becomes more and more unstable. The ending produces some dark turns and a neat final conclusion as fiction and history combine.
The real pleasure of the book come from Harris’ convincing and fascinating background on the development of the V2s. He brings the history vividly to life and puts it all in context, and has created an engrossing story to carry the detail. The scenes in London describing the horrific effects of the missiles also ring true, as does his descriptions of the newly liberated Belgium and the complexities there.
The characters are well crafted and rich in their detail. Neither Graf or Kay are without flaw and the actions of both have terrible consequences. Most of the characters, apart from the Nazi Commissar Biwack, avoid the usual stereotypes and add some real texture and depth to the novel.
In all, V2 is an entertaining and absorbing thriller that will be particularly well appreciated by those interested in military history and the V2 rocket strikes. It may not have the terrific mounting suspense of Enigma or Munich, but is still a very good and enjoyable read.
Four stars out of five.
V2 is released in Australia on 15 September 2020 and in the United Kingdom on 17 September 2020. Release in the United States would seem to be delayed until 17 December 2020.
Thanks to Penguin Random House Australia for an advanced copy of the book.