The pull of destruction

Tickling the Dragon by Ruth Brandon Jonathan Cape, pounds 14.99; E Jane Dickson is left breathless by an atomic debut
The atom bomb is the Faustian metaphor par excellence. Graphic, grandiose and discrete, its image hangs over the century like a hazard warning for over-ambitious novelists. But in a week when you thought every conceivable angle on the A-bomb had been covered, Ruth Brandon's novel, Tickling the Dragon, sparks new doubts. Brandon's theme is the irresistible glamour of pure science. Her Faust is Dr Zsygmond von Fischer, a Hungarian- Jewish physicist closely involved with the development of the bomb at Los Alamos in 1945. "Zigi'' is seduced, not by the usual Mephistophelean inducements of power and prestige, but by the intrigue of maths and matter, the thrill of numbers when they come out right. He also believes, in common with many of his Middle European colleagues, that the US is developing the bomb to hold as the ultimate deterrent against the Nazis. When it becomes clear that America has other tricks up its sleeve, Zigi quits the Manhattan Project (as the top-secret operation was known) and becomes a figurehead of the anti-nuclear movement. Or so it seems. Enter Miriam, the fond niece of Von Fischer, commissioned to write his posthumous biography. Miriam's day job is writing detective novels and her researches into Von Fischer's past unearth disturbing truths about her uncle, herself, and the unappeasable appetite of the intellect.

Best known as the author of several acclaimed biographies including Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt and last year's runaway life of Houdini, Brandon is adept at inspiring historical fact with a sense of urgency. Tickling the Dragon, her first foray into mainstream fiction, is a spirited attempt to fuse several genres (biography, whodunit, Bildungsroman) into an all-singin', all-dancin' production. But despite a likeable compulsion to rationalise the process as she goes along (" In the long run, what's the difference between a fictional character and one who really existed? ... Isn't Anna Karenina, in the long run, more real than Tolstoy?"), the different strands of Brandon's style keep unravelling. Great tracts of fact are dropped as from a great height on to the narrative, with an inevitable slackening in momentum; her characters, fixed in a tight configuration of real time and circumstance, never quite achieve the autonomy, the straining at the confines of the story, that is the mark of convincing fiction.

For all this, Brandon, in any of her stylistic guises, remains a terrifically engaging voice. Her willingness to try out opinions and morals from different standpoints is exhilarating. If you never quite understand, you will at least believe in the pulling power of mathematics once you have read this book. For Zigi and his elite brethren, "only the words and descriptions of God in his various forms seemed to approach the awe and terror of E = mc2".

Above all, it is a cautionary tale of brinkmanship. The dragon of the title refers to an experiment conducted at Los Alamos known as "tickling the dragon's tail''. In order to find out how much uranium was needed to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction, near-critical masses of the metal were assembled by hand, bit by tiny bit. A flake too far, and the whole thing exploded in your face. Spanning the decades from Hiroshima to Reagan's Star Wars programme and the Reykjavik summit, Brandon presents the nuclear arms race and decommissioning programme as a terrifying game of Jack Straws played out by fractious, fumbling children. It may not be the Great Nuclear Novel, but it is a book to make you hold your breath.