The best 1930s/1940s ‘noir’ thrillers where science gets real

Pamela Kelt Author Of Half Life
By Pamela Kelt

Who am I?

I inherited a love of ‘noir’ from my father. I’m not ashamed to say that Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are my favourite movies. I’m Scottish born, and read John Buchan as a child. I am drawn to stories that combine fast adventure with dark threats. Some years ago, we visited Tromsø and I was inspired to quit journalism and write a book filled with all my favourite ingredients. Half Life is a pre-war ‘noir’ thriller based on authentic scientific detail, researched and supplied by my husband Rob, a chemistry professor with a passion for planes. I now know more about thorium, nuclear reactors, and seaplanes than I ever thought possible.

I wrote...

Half Life

By Robert J. Deeth, Pamela Kelt,

Book cover of Half Life

What is my book about?

It is autumn in 1936. Clouds of war are gathering in Europe, while in Scandinavia the Fascists are covertly assessing possible nuclear resources. High-flying Cambridge nuclear scientist Dr. Dulcie Bennett travels to northern Norway to join an elite group of researchers eager to unlock the secrets of the atom. She makes a startling breakthrough but a suspicious lab explosion derails her plans. As she investigates, she encounters troubled Canadian journalist John Kirkwall on a personal quest, and they are drawn to each other despite initial misunderstandings.

As winter grips, they become embroiled in a shady world of political skulduggery and sexual intrigue, populated by spies, saboteurs, neurotic academics, and secret police in a tense race that could tilt the balance of power in Hitler’s favour.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of V2: A Novel of World War II

Why did I love this book?

Harris is such a literary and historical giant that it’s easy to take him for granted. The tension in the recent film, Munich: The Edge of War, was palpable, but V2 is even more gripping, an eye-opening and rattling good yarn set over a period of just a few critical days at a time when the Nazis were increasing their deadly rocket attacks on England.

I especially enjoyed how artfully the two stories were woven together, as it portrays the crisis from two opposite standpoints: the male German engineer drawn into the nightmarish world of Hitler’s fanaticism, and that of the astute WAAF back in Blighty with an eye for detail and poor taste in men. Harris tells their separate stories with verve and compassion, as they both struggle with life and death decisions in the midst of drudgery and the fear of defeat. In particular, it highlights how ‘backroom’ engineers and technicians achieved the seemingly impossible.

By Robert Harris,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked V2 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Immersive' Guardian
'Stunning' Daily Express
'Riveting' Telegraph

Victory is close. Vengeance is closer.

Rudi Graf used to dream of sending a rocket to the moon. Instead, he has helped to create the world's most sophisticated weapon: the V2 ballistic missile, capable of delivering a one-ton warhead at three times the speed of sound.

In a desperate gamble to avoid defeat in the winter of 1944, Hitler orders ten thousand to be built. Graf is tasked with firing these lethal 'vengeance weapons' at London.

Kay Caton-Walsh is an officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force who joins a unit of WAAFs…

The Man Who Never Was

By Ewen Montagu,

Book cover of The Man Who Never Was

Why did I love this book?

Spring 1943. Before dawn off the Spanish coast, a cadaver dressed in the uniform of the Royal Marines is placed in the waves. He carries a briefcase containing details of a planned Allied invasion of Greece. The Nazis find the body and its ‘secrets’ and are convinced they have been lucky enough to foil the British plans, but nothing is what it seems. 

This remarkable story of espionage is true. It was an elaborate forensic hoax devised by British intelligence to deceive the enemy, feeding them a false story, thereby allowing troops to invade Sicily instead. It is related with charm and humour by Ewen Montagu, a key figure in the operation. Its elegant, pared-down prose reads like one of Eric Ambler’s novels as it tells how regular chaps used wit and scientific know-how to fight back against the Nazi war machine. And won. Operation Mincemeat, as it was dubbed, is now the stuff of legend. Read the book before you see the new film!

By Ewen Montagu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Who Never Was as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now the subject of a major new film starring Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu in Operation Mincemeat

In the early hours of 30 April 1943, a corpse wearing the uniform of an officer in the Royal Marines was slipped into the waters off the south-west coast of Spain. With it was a briefcase, in which were papers detailing an imminent Allied invasion of Greece. As the British had anticipated, the supposedly neutral government of Fascist Spain turned the papers over to the Nazi High Command, who swallowed the story whole. It was perhaps the most decisive bluff of all time,…

Eleven for Danger

By Angus MacVicar,

Book cover of Eleven for Danger

Why did I love this book?

A Buchanesque MacVicar spins a dark tale of adventure against the charming Scottish scenery of Argyll in this 1939 yarn. Our hero is Alastair Campbell, Glasgow-based journalist and bachelor, whose plans for a cruise along the West Coast of Scotland are thwarted by a storm. Soon, he is stranded on a Hebridean island with a charming young woman – and nefarious individuals who are clearly Up To No Good. After a body turns up, they investigate and uncover a dastardly scenario to spread devastation and panic on Armistice Day (hence the title). Campbell is an appealing ‘lead’, as he doubts his ability yet nonetheless prevails. The villains are chilling, men and women alike, particularly when Campbell imagines the havoc wreaked by their plot in a fine piece of prescient writing. There are boats, guns, and planes galore, all described in expert and compelling detail that lend verisimilitude to a rip-roaring story. 

By Angus MacVicar,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eleven for Danger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Angus MacVicar runs close to John Buchan as a supreme spinner of an enthralling yarn.” Daily Express

Alastair Campbell, Glasgow-based journalist and bachelor, has a cruise planned along the West Coast of Scotland.

When he drops anchor in Tobermory Bay, his yacht – the Yellowhammer – gets caught in a storm and in a chance encounter, meets a young Londoner named Jean Lyle.

She is an artist and seems utterly unattainable and aloof, but lovely nonetheless, and it doesn’t take long for Alastair to become utterly mesmerised by her.

When she asks to be taken out on the yacht things…

Blackout in Gretley

By J.B. Priestley,

Book cover of Blackout in Gretley

Why did I love this book?

J.B. Priestley produced this engrossing spy chiller written and set in the desperate days of 1942 when the future looked grimmer by the hour. A grieving middle-aged engineer goes undercover in a grimy Midland town where vital aircraft are being built. British Intelligence suspects lurking Nazi agents and saboteurs, while it is up to our man to track them down. As he investigates, it seems that everyone is hiding secrets and soon he is embroiled in a tangle of deceit and murder. The book was ahead of its time. The protagonist is quite the modern anti-hero, struggling with inner demons, echoed by the endless grind of the blackouts, and I was gripped by the way he ultimately finds something worth fighting for. The story is dazzlingly put together, filled with contemporary details and deep menace that result in a classic page-turner, ideal for a binge read on a dark afternoon. The book was ahead of its time.

By J.B. Priestley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blackout in Gretley as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humphrey Neyland is a middle-aged Canadian engineer recruited by British Intelligence to go undercover in the industrial city of Gretley, where aircraft essential to the war effort are being produced and where it is feared Nazi agents and saboteurs are lurking. Almost everyone he meets in Gretley seems to have a double life and a secret agenda, and it doesn't take long before Neyland is caught up in a web of murder and deceit in this sleepy town, where death lurks around every corner.

Originally published during the height of World War II, J.B. Priestley's classic spy thriller Blackout in…

Book cover of The Dark Frontier: A Spy Thriller

Why did I love this book?

One rainy day in 1930s Paris, a copywriter decided to write a thriller and devised a tale about the nuclear bomb, Nazi scientists, and a mysterious Balkan country. This sounds like the start of a novel, but it is the real-life birth of master storyteller Eric Ambler’s first book. A curmudgeonly English physicist is invited to corroborate the nuclear formula, but then... the twist. He is concussed in a car accident and awakes convinced that he is now a super-spy, one Carruthers, who takes on the forces of evil with a Bond-like nonchalance. 

Is the book a parody of earlier spy novels? Perhaps Ambler is seduced by the cleverness of his own story. I don’t actually care. It remains a satisfyingly imaginative tale about the role of science in war, all written in a witty, gritty style that sets the tone for many enjoyable books and films to come.

By Eric Ambler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dark Frontier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Dark Frontier launched Eric Ambler’s five-decade career as one of the most influential thriller writers of our time.
England, 1935. Physicist Henry Barstow is on holiday when he meets the mysterious Simon Groom, a representative for an armaments manufacturer. Groom invites the professor to Ixania, a small nation-state in Eastern Europe whose growing weapons program threatens to destabilize the region. Only after suffering a blow to the head—which muddles his brain into believing he is Conway Carruthers, international spy—does the mild-mannered physicist agree to visit Ixania. But he quickly recognizes that Groom has a more sinister agenda, and Carruthers…

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