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.

The books I picked & why

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V2: A Novel of World War II

By Robert Harris,

Book cover of V2: A Novel of World War II

Why 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.

The Man Who Never Was

By Ewen Montagu,

Book cover of The Man Who Never Was

Why 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!

Eleven for Danger

By Angus MacVicar,

Book cover of Eleven for Danger

Why 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. 

Blackout in Gretley

By J.B. Priestley,

Book cover of Blackout in Gretley

Why 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.

The Dark Frontier: A Spy Thriller

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Dark Frontier: A Spy Thriller

Why 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.

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