A perplexing thriller and a new trope: ‘Nuclear Noir’

The Carrier by Mattias Berg

Translated from the Swedish by George Goulding

This thriller has a premise and a half to keep you reading. Imagine you’re on a state visit and the agent who is never more than a few feet from POTUS, the agent called Erasmus Levine carrying the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes, goes rogue – disappears – with the briefcase of course. What do you do? The thing is that agent Edelweiss, who runs the ‘NUCLEUS’ team set up after 9/11 that Erasmus is part of, has a pretty good idea from the outset. He knows his history of nuclear weapons, he knows of everyone in the West involved with the nuclear weapons programme after WWII, and is clear about where their allegiance lies.

Erasmus’s mind had turned towards extricating himself from his two-faced role. On one side, the fit but mild-mannered professor at a minor university in Washington DC whose field of study is philosophy of nuclear weapons, the loving husband with three kids – improbably named: Unity, Duality, Trinity! On the other side, while travelling for research, he is the hyper-trained agent with the briefcase. When he started to get coded messages sent to him which, when deciphered, begin ‘WE TWO AGAINST THE WORLD’, he is finally forced into making the decision when on a state visit in Stockholm, and descends from the staged emergency in the hotel into the tunnels and bunkers under the city where he discovers who ‘Alpha’, the sender of the messages really is. Thus begins the cat and mouse game of Edelweiss and his team vs Erasmus and Alpha. The thing that kept me transfixed was never knowing Alpha’s true aim – whether destroyer or peacenik incapacitator.

This is Swedish journalist Mattias Berg’s first novel – and it shows. Not in the mega-complicated conspiracy plot, which I am still perplexed by, nor the near superhuman characters involved (the fittest characters I’ve ever met in a thriller), but in the sheer amount of detail that he shoehorns into the book. At 479 pages in hardback, I felt it could have been whittled down to 350 or fewer through losing the excessive detail and some of the pondering. Berg tells us so much about the bunkers and tunnels underneath Stockholm, (apparently they exist) I felt I could draw a map of them almost – he gives us all the depths as shown on Erasmus’s watch of course, all the terrains. He does this similarly for the other locations – in one scene Erasmus and co are put into a hot room, and they turn the dial up – we’re left in no doubt about the effects of the increasing temperature and lack of oxygen.

We also learn about ‘The Mother of the Atomic Bomb’ – Austro-Swedish nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, mainly through info-dump sections from Erasmus’s college dissertation on this real scientist who was denied the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for being one of those discovering nuclear fission. The whole of this conspiracy novel could be seen as revenge for her being ignored in a sense. The novel is perhaps over-researched in this respect – but it does make you think: there was a good stat in it somewhere about the all the disarmament talks which have been about 17% of the weapons – what about the other 83%?

Berg has created some memorable characters though – these agents and conspirators are supermen and women – but they all have their weaknesses. Erasmus, as our narrator remains a bit of an enigma in comparison. I am still finding it near impossible to get my head around the plot, especially what happens when they go abroad to bases in Belgium and Sicily, the double-crossing and manipulation on each side is so complex and intense. Actually, I can forgive some of the info dumps as they give a breather from trying to work out what’s happening in this dastardly complicated conspiracy thriller that’s invented its own trope according to the blurb: ‘Nuclear Noir’.

Source: Review copy – thank you.

Mattias Berg, trans George Goulding, The Carrier (Maclehose, May 2019) Hardback, 479 pages.

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