Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
Book-reader's Bias: Due to my recent non-fiction readings on WWII heroic men of science material, I was probably a bit more apt to be underwhelmed by the fictional portrayals of same in this book than I might have otherwise been. It's an interesting adventure story with decent verisimilitude, oh and also science.
Gas! Gas! Quick Boys!
My 11th grade history class (Modern Euro) was a pretty lackluster affair. However, it did introduce me to one of the most memorable and powerful reflections on war I've come across to date, Wilfred Owen's poem “Dulce et Decorem Est.” (If you haven't read the poem before, go do it — in addition to being great, it's only four stanzas long, so you have no good excuse).
So, what does a poem from the First World War have to do with a piece of WWII historical fiction? Actually, quite a bit. The dread and the trauma from WWI was still very present for (among others) the book's protagonist and pacifist doctor/scientist, Mark McConnell, whose veteran father never truly recovered from his encounters with chemical warfare. This is among the book's “historical artifacts”; Londoners (below) were taught protocols and drilled for potential attacks in the densely populated metropolis.
Geneva Protocol be damned, no one was feeling particularly confident that chemical weapons were being taken out of play. A nice little Slate article led me to the four posters (below) intended to help with identifying the effects/presence of gases.
Of the gases above (according to the story), phosgene was considered the heavy hitter. However, the life-altering plot twist in Black Cross comes with the discovery by the British that Reich scientists had discovered how to produce and make use of the deadlier gases, sarin, and soman.
I'm Blinding You With Science!
I don't know how you guys went about studying for physiology and such in your college years, but, for me, it involved a lot of water coloring.* So, since you're probably asking yourselves what the BFD is about the aforementioned gases, allow me to illustrate (both figuratively and literally).
See those little blue dotty things? Those are nice little synaptic vesicles chock full of a nice little neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (ACh). ACh is very exciting stuff...no, I'm serious, it binds to its little receptors (on muscle fibers in this case) and opens the gate for sodium, and there's an action potential, and your muscles contract etc. (I numbered the steps in my little diagram, so you can work out the details for yourselves).
What my drawing fails to depict is what usually goes down in the aftermath; namely, that a sexy little enzyme called Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) shows up. At first glance, you might think that AChE is a bit of a Debbie downer— its job is to clean up the party started by our exciting pal ACh. However, without AChE there to do its thing, those channels become desensitized to ACh and this really shuts things down.
So, if for some reason AChE were to be held back, the word “inhibited” comes to mind, these neuromuscular transmissions, helpful for things like breathing, would fail...and you're gonna have a bad time. And, guess what sarin, soman and organophosphates are all about?
If for some strange reason you prefer to get your “science” from the CDC, rather than some book-reading weirdo on the internet, see below.
Of Nazis & Nerve Gas
If you're looking to kill stuff, then nervous system disruption is a pretty good tactic. Thus, German chemist, Gerhard Schrader, tasked with finding a better insecticide, was tinkering about with organophosphates. When he sprayed some methyl-isopropoxyl-fluorophosphine oxide on a patch of leaf lice not only did the bugs bite the dust, but soon (coming into contact with the aforementioned liquid) he and his lab assistants were going blind and twitching about.
The Nazi powers that be, however, had applications other than crop preservation in mind. Otto Ambros (who, like Schrader, was employed at IG Farben) was soon overseeing the production and stockpiling of poisonous gases which (you guessed it) were, of course, tested on the Nazi equivalent of vermin—concentration camp inmates.
Book? What Book?
So, yeah, Greg Isles has a whole story constructed around what was, and what might have been given the scientific scenario described. It's a good book, but, like I said, I'm probably more of a non-fiction girl myself.
* What? It's hard to make yourself stare at all those receptors and chemical pathways. Bonus tip: The best way to memorize enzyme names is by pretending they're spells from Harry Potter. I literally flicked my wrist in wand-like motions while taking my neuro exams. Sure I looked crazy, but I also still remember Phenylethanolamine N-methyltransferase (obviously, the “spell” for converting norepinephrine to epinephrine). So, if that comes up in life, I'm totally ready for it.