The Lure was first published in 2002, and is Bill Napier's fourth novel. The time is the present and the action starts in a vast underground lake beneath Slovakia's Tatra mountains. This has been comprehensively instrumented for an Anglo-Soviet research project aimed at detecting traces of the elusive Dark Matter particles passing through it. After several years of zero results, the three scientists who are monitoring the project are astonished when the lake is suddenly swamped by an intense storm of particles, then even more amazed when they detect what appears to be a coherent pattern in the storm. To help analyze this phenomenon they recruit two more specialists who confirm that the pattern is real, can only be the product of an advanced intelligence and contains hugely valuable scientific information: it is a message from the stars, aimed at humanity.
The scientists are ready to announce their momentous discovery to the world, but their national leaders are becoming anxious. What if the message is a lure by some malign intelligence, designed to prompt a response which would lead to the annihilation of any species which might be able to threaten the message-senders? The scientists slowly realise that not only is their announcement being blocked but their lives are in danger.
The US government discovers what is happening, and some of the most intriguing passages are the intense debates at the highest level concerning how to react: whether to make a public announcement of the event and respond to the message; or to make use of the information without responding; or to kill the whole story and everyone involved with it in order to prevent anyone responding. Being the USA, religion gets involved but so do some interesting arguments concerning the probability of an advanced civilisation being hostile or friendly. Interleaved with these chapters are gripping scenes of a relentless manhunt across a winter landscape as the scientists desperately try to survive and get their message out.
The book's cover draws a comparison with The Da Vinci Code but this does it a great disservice. The author is a professional astronomer, and it shows: the technical aspects of the plot are authoritative and the debates thoroughly convincing. The conclusion concerning the nature and purpose of the message is fascinating. At first I thought the writing style a little clunky but before long was thoroughly engrossed in the story. The tension ramps up steadily and I read the second half in one sitting - I really couldn't put it down.
Interestingly, the book is not marketed as SF but simply as a "thriller". Possibly this is because the emphasis of the story is not on the aliens and their message but on the human response to receiving it. Frankly, I don't care what they call it; it is one of the most thoughtful, realistic and exciting first contact novels I've ever read. I can't recommend it too highly, and my next task is to track down copies of the author's other books.