In the mid-sized, middle-America town of Dayton, Ohio, retired homicide detective John Burke isn’t wildly happy about the reduced pace of his life, but in this quick-moving new thriller by Tom Harley Campbell, unexpected trouble—and a fascinating mystery—are headed straight toward him. They arrive in the form of 18-year-old Alex Johnson, all the way from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Alex’s father was a Mississippi cop whose body was found in Dayton’s Mad River four years earlier. Not solving that case has haunted Burke ever since. Now Alex provides a tantalizing clue.
A news story starts another pot simmering. Al-Jazeera reports that Yasser Arafat died from polonium210 poisoning. Deeply interested in this development is Hattiesburg history professor Charles Robinson. He’s haunted by the mysterious 2004 death of his own father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, which Charles believes was also a polonium poisoning. Charles’s father had a secret, post-World War II assignment in Dayton, called Project Blue Book (in real life), to investigate reports of UFOs (now called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), and determine whether they threaten national security.
In the post-War era, while the older Robinson was sifting evidence, the Air Force, the military, and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted an unrelenting public information campaign to discredit UFO reports and depict the believers as tin-foil-hat-wearing kooks. (Last week, Enigma Labs released a mobile app in which users can report and record an unexplainable event as it happens, potentially turning random anecdotal information into data.)
Whether you believe UFOs exist or not, you will understand that, in dicey situations, it’s always the cover-up that presents the greatest difficulties. The more extreme the effort to hide something, the more important it’s likely to be. Project Blue Book’s work and conclusions have been secret for fifty years. As John Burke probes the death of these two fathers, the campaign to cover up Project Blue Book seems to threaten all of them.
John Burke is an exceedingly likeable character. He may be retired, but don’t sell him short. There’s a complex plot here, as befits a story with so many deep secrets, housed in an inaccessible area of Dayton’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Author Campbell effectively conveys the intimate feel of Dayton (population less than 140,000), a relatively small dog wagged by the big tail of the defense, aerospace, and aviation industries. A local police department can’t help but feel that a giant hovers over its shoulder. And that giant, Burke learns, isn’t always friendly.
There’s just enough science here to make the story interesting and give it plausibility, without weighing it down. Campbell does an especially good job interleaving actual events with his fictional tale. It’s a wild ride, and a fun one! You can order it here with my affiliate link.
Want more? The multi-episode docuseries, “UFOs: Investigating the Unknown” premieres on the National Geographic TV channel Feb. 13.