Friday, 16 March 2012

Book Review - Pantheon Sam Bourne

I believe I've read all of Sam Bourne's previous novels and he has been one of my favourite authors in the "cracking thriller" genre. 

This is an interesting novel on a variety of levels.  The story centres around an Oxford academic, his wife - also an Oxford academic and an Olympic swimmer and their child, a young boy.  The novel starts out in the early days of WWII the time of the Battle Of Britain when Britain stood pretty much alone against the might of the Germany army camped a mere 23 miles away on the French coast when everyone expected an inevitable invasion.  Through a series of flash backs you are introduced to the romance of our two main characters and realise that these are principled people - they met at the People's Olympiad which was an attempt in 1936 to present an alternative Olympics for those boycotting the official games being held in Berlin.

To cut to the chase our learned academic returns from an early morning rowing session on the river to find his wife and child have left leaving no details of where they have gone.  Almost instantly sinister goings on are afoot as you know that mail is being intercepted and feel people who should help our hero don't appear to be doing so.  The tail moves quickly on to America and introduces plenty of vilians in the form of an anti-Jewish group within the UK who are hoping to strike a peace deal with the Germans, various Oxford and Yale administrators and a young American who is working in the US embasy and clearly is up to much no good.  This is all good stuff as you are drawn into how will all these disconnects finally be connected.

The tale moves on with again lots of blockage of our man trying to trace his family in the USA.  In trying to find them murders are committed, evidence removed, he is arrested, attacked and tailed.  What ties all this together is actually eugenics.  "What?" you might ask. Eugenics was a brand of scientific study which looked at how through selective breeding particular qualities could be bred in or out of humans.  Eugenics was pretty mainstream in the early 20th century and is something I've recently looked into a bit as the institution I work at is linked to it through really the initial founder of the movement Francis Galton.  Today, due to it's association with the Nazi regime it has been discredited to a large degree and to have someone today say that mass sterilization of low achievers would be unthinkable.  However you look back to the early 20th century you find luminaries like George Bernard Shaw, Maynard Keynes, even Winston Churchill himself were supporters to a greater or lesser extent in the UK.   And this is in part the point of this novel to bring that topic back into the popular public spotlight - I'm not sure to what cause - but it does make one wonder if things had gone differently between 1939 - 1941 what would have happened both in Europe and the USA with these beliefs.  Of course our greater understanding of genetics now makes us know that it is impossible (currently) to predict a random mutation the gene code anyway and so even with the most rigorous selective breeding programme you can still get significant mutation from the planned out come so in essence the major underlying philosophy in Eugenics is largely flawed.

So lots of true fact weaved into a really good thriller - this isn't the break neck paced Hollywood screen play slanted sort of book but a slightly slower one with fewer characters encountered in more depth and as a book it is all the better for it having you think and use your imagination more.

Really good book, with a good climactic ending and some interesting observations about Eugenics in the early 20th century.

Complete double thumbs up on the Furtheron book review scale.


  1. I got my introduction to Eugenics through a science fiction book called "The Iron Dream" by Norman Spinrad. The problem is it seems so rational on the surface.

    I suppose the modern approach would be via genetic engineering at the embryonic stage.

  2. I shall have to look out for this. I've read other Sam Bournes and enjoyed them.

  3. Wow... that sounds really interesting.