Alex Capus' latest novel opens in his Swiss homeland. His three main characters cross paths fleetingly at the Zurich train station in November 1924 before going their separate ways, never to meet again. The rest of "A Price to Pay" — Capus' fourth novel translated into English by the superb John Brownjohn — traces each of their wildly divergent lives and assesses their individual contributions to 20th-century history.

At the outset, two of his characters are young. Laura d'Oriano is a headstrong 13-year-old, the fifth child in a nomadic family that is finally returning home to Marseilles. When we first meet Felix Bloch, he is 19 and about to embark on a course of study. He attends some lectures on quantum mechanics and fails to understand them but is galvanized by their logic and enchanted by "the poetry of ideas, the metaphysical beauty of their language." Despite his father's preference for mechanical engineering, Felix opts for atomic physics, resolving to "spend his life doing something beautiful, useless and utterly impractical." Laura, on the other hand, heads to Paris, but after failing to make her mark as one of the "future goddesses of song" at the Conservatoire, retreats to the South to sing in cafes.

Capus' third character is Émile Gilliéron, a talented draftsman who, like his father, has assisted notable archaeologists on their excavations by sketching their ancient discoveries. However, father and son are driven by creative license, and what begins as credible reproductions of Trojan and Minoan art leads to full-scale fakes — to the extent that Émile soon sees himself as "the greatest forger of all time."

As interesting and as exotic as Émile's journey is, his strand is the novel's weakest link. No tension underscores his activities; he is never pursued or caught out. There is far more at stake within Felix's sections. He swaps Germany for the United States in 1933 when the clamor of marching jackboots and rising anti-Semitism becomes too much, and after war breaks out he finds himself working on Robert Oppenheimer's atomic bomb. Laura's world is also highly charged. Stifled by small-town family life, she abandons her husband and daughters and assumes various new identities as a wartime spy.

"A Price to Pay" lacks the passion and the pathos of Capus' hitherto best novel, "Léon and Louise," and its original, functional, literal title, "The Forger, the Spy and the Bomb-Builder," works better than the imprecise and somewhat melodramatic English one. But there is much here to appreciate, not the least Laura's fraught missions into fascist Italy and Felix's conscience-stabbing quandary: "not only to reflect on the most terrible killing machine in human history but actually to build it."

Capus' characters were real people who, in their own unique ways, helped shape the previous century. He does them justice in his captivating novel by fleshing them out and allowing them to breathe and pulse on the page.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.