Critical Mass presents an interesting genre mix: political thriller, detective story and time-slip novel. Although mostly set in the 21st century, it contains scenes from Vienna and elsewhere in 1913, 1938, 1942 and 1953 which reveal a story of persecution, illegitimacy, theft, paranoia and the dawning of the nuclear age. It is an historical novel that takes as its subject issues that affect our lives today, nuclear fission and computers.
Victoria Warshawski, well-known private eye, takes on a missing person search as a favour to a friend. She discovers a man hideously murdered in a cornfield, which draws her into a tangle of scientific secrets and the mysteries of physics – of 1930s Nobel prizes and the extraordinary women scientists of pre-war Austria. It soon becomes apparent that the killers and the forces behind them are determined to prevent truth from surfacing. The book is utterly thrilling in both its present and past sections.
V. I. Warshawski is a fully realised personality. The heroine of sixteen novels, one never tires of her. She is courageous, sharp, and yet can make mistakes. Though foolhardy, she is always determined to discover truth. Her coterie contains equally likeable characters. Lottie, her confidante, has an interesting past. Mr Conteras, the comforting and elderly neighbour, is always ready to help when the going gets tough. They become the reader’s friends too, one of the secrets of this writer’s success, in addition to her succinct prose, deft plotting and sustained tension.
Paretsky has read extensively around Operation Paperclip, in which the U.S. government brought into America many Nazi weapons and rocket researchers, and was inspired by a real person, the Austrian physicist, Marietta Blau. I found this novel important, gripping, and exceptionally well written. I recommend it without reservation.