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Los Alamos : A Novel (1997)
Edgar Award Winner: Best First Novel (1998)
Were it not set against such a compelling historical backdrop, this would be an entirely forgettable mystery. But Army Intelligence officer Michael Connolly isn't investigating just any murder; the corpse found in a Santa Fe park is that of a Los Alamos security officer and it is early April, 1945. Though the victim is found with his pants around his ankles, suggesting a possible tie to a previous unsolved homosexual murder, it is Connolly's job to be certain that the case does not effect security at the most secretive and important military installation in the country.
Kanon uses the setting and real life characters to good effect. The story unfolds as final preparations are made for testing the atomic bomb and concludes on the night of Trinity, with the blast being the most impressive bit of writing in the book. Kanon's hardly the first to exploit the natural tension between the very different General Leslie Groves--blunt, bluff, and straightforward--and J. Robert Oppenheimer--all introspection and angst--but he does so capably. And the questions of whether to use the bomb and what motivated those who spied for the Soviets provide a patina of moral seriousness.
Unfortunately though, much of this historical drama is undercut by what we now know of the real history. Obviously we know that the bomb will work and that it will be dropped on Japan. More importantly, we know that the Manhattan Project was thoroughly infiltrated by Soviet Intelligence and that even some of the scientists who were not Communists may have supplied information to the Soviets. They may honestly have believed that the post-War world would be better off if both superpowers had the bomb, but, whether they were right or not (a fight we need not take up here), such actions on their part were nonetheless treasonous.
Of course, the big question concerns Oppenheimer himself. With the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been some corroboration of the accusation that he too aided the Soviet Union (see particularly the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness--A Soviet Spymaster), but nothing definitive has come out. I recall my first exposure to Oppenheimer was a miniseries in 1980 which not only sought to portray him as something of a martyr to anti-Communist witch hunts, but which, given the context of the times, was at least an oblique commentary on US paranoia as a cause of the Cold War. Now that we can step back and look at the Oppenheimer case with a little less emotion, it seems unimportant whether he actually committed any acts of espionage himself; what seems truly bizarre is that a man who had belonged to Communist front groups and whose wife, brother, and many friends were all Communists, at one time or another, was put, and left, in charge of the project in the first place. Though he was reviled for saying so, one has to agree with Edward Teller's testimony at Oppenheimer's security hearings that the nation would be more secure with Oppenheimer out of government.
At any rate, considering the ease with which the Soviets obtained the supposedly safely guarded atomic secrets, it's a little bit difficult to take the book's espionage plotline seriously. In fact, the book would have benefited from a little less of the standard chase, since its outcome doesn't ultimately matter, and a little further exploration of the motivations and consequences of the real spying that went on there.
-AUTHOR PAGE : Joseph Kanon (Bold Type, Random House)
-ESSAY : Imagining the Icon (Joseph Kanon, Bold Type)
-INTERVIEW : with Joseph Kanon (Ann Online)
-PROFILE : The prodigal publishing exec : Joseph Kanon's still in the business, but now as a novelist ( FRITZ LANHAM, 2/10/1999, Houston Chronicle)
-PROFILE : Kanon returns to Cold War in second thriller (Caroline Abels, February 09, 1999, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos ( Lawrence Thornton, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (YVONNE CRITTENDEN, Toronto Sun)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (USA Today)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (WILLIAM GEORGIADES , Salon)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (David Walton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Art Jester, Lexington Herald-Leader)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi )
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Mystery Guide)
-REVIEW : of Los Alamos (Edward Morris, Book Page)
-REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy (Morton Kondracke, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon (Steve Nemmers, The Mystery Reader)
-REVIEW : of The Prodigal Spy (Steve Duin,The Oregonian)
-REVIEW : of Prodigal Spy (Tom Walker, Denver Post)
-AWARD : 1998 Edgar Allan Poe Award Winners : Best First Novel
LOS ALAMOS/MANHATTAN PROJECT :
ATOMIC ESPIONAGE :
DROPPING THE BOMB :