Book review: Overkill by James Barrington

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True to its title, Overkill is a book full of action, blood and guts, spies crawling all over, and of course, political intrigue. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frightening reality that has been presented in the book.

A nuclear war could obliterate our species—everyone knows that. But that hasn’t stopped nations from stockpiling nuclear weapons, testing nuclear bombs underground, and funneling money into research to produce better nuclear bombs. Since most governments have many checks and balances in place, nobody has actually detonated a nuclear weapon so far.

But what if a radical outfit decided to take it upon themselves to cleanse the world of people they consider unfit to exist? What if they had functional nuclear weapons that they did not hesitate to use?

The author’s note was most concerning. From nuclear weapons stockpiling in the U.S. and Europe to development of a neutron bomb to the discovery of a substance called red mercury, the note detailed topics that became direr with each sentence.

The neutron bomb is a super lethal bomb that releases neutrons that kill humans but leave buildings standing. Its working is dealt with in so much detail in the book that at one point, I just gave up trying to understand it. I was never great at physics, anyway. Nevertheless, my limited understanding did not stop me from the arriving at the horrible conclusion that if this weapon is real, the world is in grave danger indeed.

John Barrington (a pseudonym!) claims that all the details about the bomb are accurate. His bio says he’s an ex-military pilot, so I guess he knows what he’s saying. I still find this truth hard to swallow.

What interested me the most was the bit about red mercury. According to Wikipedia, red mercury is a fictitious substance that is sold by cheats to terrorist outfits or armed groups with the promise of being a viable alternative to weapons-grade plutonium (required as fuel for nuclear weapons). But Barrington asserts that red mercury is real. I don’t know what to believe!

The premise of the book is that Russia is secretly developing its nuclear arsenal despite the policy of glasnost and is taking U.S. dollars in exchange for what the Americans believe to be weapons-grade plutonium that has been extracted from Russia’s nuclear weapons. Since independent surveys show that the plutonium that Russia’s been sending to the United States is a waste by-product, the question is what Russia is doing with the real deal.

Barrington’s tale outlines how one disaffected Russian minister succeeds in detonating a nuclear weapon in the United States, funded by Arab money. The sinister plan that the Arabs have themselves hatched is revealed much later. The adrenaline-fueled race to locate the last nuclear weapon to be positioned in Europe amidst the grudging assistance offered by one nation’s secret agency to another is a breathless, albeit dismaying read.

What I liked most about the novel is that the plot isn’t like the run-of-the-mill action movies (although it would make a good action movie!) where there’s one guy who saves the day and no one gets seriously hurt. There IS a nuclear explosion in America and the hero—Paul Richter—isn’t perfect or superhuman and doesn’t have all the answers. He gets beaten within an inch of his life. He gets nearly blown up by a nuclear device. He is stonewalled by the French. He fails to break into the supercomputer that’s linked to the firing switch located on the satellite in outer space.

In short, he’s real.

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