By Matthew Kresal
A Nazi atomic bomb. It's the lynchpin of numerous alternate history works for an Axis victory in World War II, from the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle to Spike TV's failed pilot a decade ago. Yet the reality of the Nazi nuclear weapons programme reveals that that fantasy is threadbare, at best.
Has that idea ever been written in a more grounded way? The answer, of course, is yes and it happened perhaps before the cliche was ever established. I'm talking about Parting Shot by James Kunetka, first published in 1991 and given a second life on Kindle in 2016.
If there is someone who might be able to ground such a tale in some much-needed reality, it would be Kunetka. Kunetka's earlier writing had included the non-fiction works City of Fire on the early years of Los Alamos, as well as a biography of the Manhattan Project's scientific leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, subtitled The Years of Risk. Kunetka returned to the topic more recently with his 2015 book The General and the Genius. As a fiction writer, he co-wrote the 1984 novel War Day with Whitley Streiber, a haunting and sobering account of America a few years after a limited nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kunetka then is something of an authority on the early atomic era, but does that mean he can write a good thriller?
Parting Shot suggests it does.
Kunetka’s narrative opens in 1991 with a London construction crew busy at work before coming across something quite strange beneath the city. Something that it turns out to have all the hallmarks of being a crude atomic bomb. To make matters worse, evidence suggests what they've found has not only been there for decades but is of Nazi origin. Deputy Home Minister Edmund Ramsden, a British civil servant on the edge of retirement, starts following a paper trail leading, back to the last days of the Second World War.
Back in 1945, as the Manhattan Project neared its objective of building America's first atomic weapons in the New Mexico desert, a young physicist from Detroit is busy helping ready the bomb that will come to be known as Little Boy. Soon young Philip Cavanaugh finds himself brought from Los Alamos to Washington, Cavanaugh finds himself recruited for a special mission by Oppenheimer and the project’s military boss, Army General Leslie Groves: to go to the Soviet-occupied zone in a recently defeated Germany to investigate what seems to be a German atomic laboratory. Cavanaugh’s journey takes him from wartime Washington and London to the heart of the Soviet zone, uncovering an effort by Hitler to "spit from his grave" and strike revenge at the otherwise victorious allied powers in the war’s aftermath.
Kunetka's background with Los Alamos and the early history of nuclear weapons shines throughout Parting Shot. Whether it's young Cavanaugh's interactions with Oppenheimer and Groves or the portrayal of increasing distrust between America and Britain on matters atomic, Kunetka works a sense of authenticity to proceedings. And, as the top of this review suggests, Kunetka found a way of dealing with the question of plausibly presenting a Nazi atomic bomb at war's end. One that plays into the rivalries and lack of coordination, often leading to numerous teams working on the same project without knowing it. Or, at the very least, have produced something that would have been comparatively crude by the standards of the Manhattan Project's work at Los Alamos. In doing so, Kunetka creates a plausible way in which the facts we know about the Nazi atomic bomb project could still be true, at least as far as those involved with that project knew.
To tell his story, Kunetka uses a tried and true storytelling device. Using Ramsden in 1991 as a framing device, the novel follows a similar arc to books like Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed or Duncan Kyle's novels such as The King's Commissar, using a present-day investigation to fill in the gaps in a narrative set in the past. It allows a peeling back of a veil at a time, taking reader and characters alike further and further down a path. It also fits Parting Shot into a niche that novels such as Daniel Wyatt’s Last Flight of the Arrow fit into, what might be termed the retro-techno-thriller (as a Publisher's Weekly review from 1991, that I came across after I read and originally reviewed the novel in 2020, described it as).
That doesn't mean Kunetka pens a perfect novel, of course. Some of his characterizations are downright wooden in places, especially with secondary characters like some of the British intelligence folks Cavanaugh encounters in London. There's also a subplot concerning the young physicist's blossoming romance with Christine, a woman at the Pentagon attached to the Manhattan Project there, which feels like a genre trope only present because someone told Kunetka it needed to be, complete with a love scene that fits Alexander Wallace’s notion of alternate history and bad sex scenes all too well. Finally, as plausible as Cavanaugh's actions are as a fish out of water agent are for on the whole, the last major action sequence seems a little too convenient given who and what this physicist finds himself up against. None of these are fatal flaws, by any means, but they do serve to weaken an otherwise strong piece of work.
Yet Parting Shot, for those flaws, still has plenty to offer. It remains, for this reviewer, the most plausible Nazi atomic bomb tale I’ve yet come across. As such, it’s worth seeking out on that basis alone. It’s also a cracking good spy thriller that deserves a second look.