Originally posted on Goodreads.com.
Owen Matthews’s Black Sun follows Major Alexander Vasin as he investigates the apparent suicide of a scientist at a secret Soviet nuclear research facility. Throughout his investigation, Vasin questions whether it’s possible for men and women to be consistently good in an amoral or immoral society. With well-placed backstory, unexpected friendships and attractions, and the myriad pressures of being a member of a post-Stalinist KGB which nonetheless carries the previous generation’s scars, Matthews layers Vasin’s conflicts to create an entertaining and compelling historical thriller that does not hide from the contradictions—nor the virtues—inherent in its central characters.
Vasin’s internal struggles parallel the concrete need to uncover the circumstances surrounding young Fyodor Petrov’s gruesome death-by-radiation-poisoning while evading the official forces trying to place roadblocks in his way. Whether the brute authority of General Zaitsev and his secret police or the contemptuous erudition of Professor Adamov, the forces of the secret facility Arzamas-16 seek to halt Vasin’s investigation through the strangling officialdom of Soviet Russia—in which, to their chagrin, Vasin is himself a professional.
Matthews’ family relations and his background as a Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek provides an intimate and well-researched setting for Vasin’s experience, not only in the meticulous bureaucracy that encourages the maintenance of palatable lies but in the chronic need to keep at least one eye over one’s shoulder. Counting day-by-day up to the test of an untried and unprecedented nuclear device, the story’s structure leads up to a climax that is worth the steadily building conflicts of the preceding chapters. Whether for the thrill of Vasin’s investigation, the historically immersive setting, or the ironic dark humor that provides the only medium for such a subject matter, Matthews’ work is an excellent read.