Lost in the mists


Boris Starling <em>HarperCollins, 320pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0007221797

Every novel should be a journey, and Visibility is an engrossing trip back in time. This evocative thriller is set in London in 1952, during the last of the great pea-soupers and at the height of the cold war. The thick, filthy air is almost a character in itself, adding a powerful sense of claustro phobia to every page. It blankets the city, blocks the light, turns day to night, chokes the asthmatic and leaves a trail of grime on everything it touches. The story starts with a murder. Max Stensness, a promising young scientist, is found dead in Long Water, in Hyde Park. Stensness was no ordinary formula-cruncher, but had been working on the secret of life itself: DNA.

Detective Inspector Herbert Smith is assigned to investigate Stensness's death. A loner who has left MI5 for the murder squad at Scotland Yard, Smith is disliked by the plods because he used to be a spook and by his former colleagues because he's now a policeman. He lives in a dreary set of rooms, taking predictably meagre solace in occasional couplings with one of the working girls at Shepherd Market. But Smith emerges as a more complex character than this stereotype might suggest.

In his investigations, he discovers no shortage of candidates: Stensness's work is of extreme interest to the British and American governments, the Soviets and, most of all, the sinister Dr Fischer, formerly of a Nazi race-hygiene institute, now on the US intelligence payroll as part of Operation Paperclip. Dr Fischer is a fictional character, but Operation Paperclip was real: a mass importation of Nazi war criminals, whose expertise was judged more important than bringing them to justice for their crimes against humanity.

Boris Starling, a former reporter for the Sun and the Daily Telegraph, is a name to watch. His first book, Messiah, about a serial killer, inspired four BBC television series. His most recent, Vodka, was a vividly drawn blockbuster set in Moscow in the post-Gorbachev era, that lawless time when the whole of the former Soviet Union was up for grabs. Visibility, too, has a powerful sense of time and place. Starling evokes well the dreariness of postwar austerity Britain: its weak gas-fires, sporadic hot water and bland, stodgy diet, where fresh vegetables are almost unknown and garlic is an abomination. Then, as now, MI5 and Scotland Yard regarded each other as rivals rather than allies. Information is hoarded, never shared, and former colleagues can be the most dangerous adversaries of all.

Visibility is an intelligent and thought-provoking book, one that asks lingering questions about the very nature of loyalty and love.

Adam LeBor's "Complicity With Evil: the United Nations in the age of modern genocide" is published by Yale University Press

This article first appeared in the 16 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The war on youth