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Los Alamos : A Novel ()

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.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -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 ( 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 National Laboratory | Home
    -Virtual Los Alamos - The Online Guide to Los Alamos, NM
    -Manhattan Project (National Atomic Museum)
    -The Manhattan Project (Nuclear Files)
    -Department of Special Collections | Manhattan Project and Atomic Scientists Collections (University of Chicago)
    -The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project : The Costs of the Manhattan Project (Brookings Institute)
    -The History and Ethics Behind The Manhattan Project (Miguel A. Bracchini, Mechanical Engineering Department  The University of Texas at Austin)
    -Mr. Dowling's Electronic Passport to the Manhattan Project
    -Manhattan Project Who's Who
    -The Unofficial Trinity Site Page
    -Fat Man and Little Boy:  Birth of the Atomic Age (American Airpower Heritage Museum)
    Cold War International History Project
    -Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
    -ESSAY : The Manhattan Project: an enduring legacy (Physics Web)
    -ESSAY : Fifty Years from Trinity (BILL DIETRICH, Seattle Times)
    -ESSAY : Fifty Year Fallout : August 1945: The bomb that leveled Hiroshima kicked off a costly nuclear arms race that corrupted international relations for decades to come. (G. Pascal Zachary, Metro Active)
    -LINKS : The Manhattan Project
    -LINKS :  The Manhattan Project : Scientists & Conscience (Military & Armaments - Anti Nuclear Weapons)
    -The American Experience | Race for the Superbomb  (PBS)
    -REVIEW : of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (WILLIAM J. BROAD, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of RICHARD FEYNMAN A Life in Science. By John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Dennis Overbye, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STALIN AND THE BOMB The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956. By David Holloway (Priscilla Johnson McMillan, NY Times Book Review)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA :   Oppenheimer, J(ulius) Robert
    -Julius Robert Oppenheimer's Home Page
    -The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School :  United States Atomic Energy Commission.   In The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
    -ESSAY :  J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER and EDWARD TELLER :  Brotherhood of the Bomb : Two flinty physicists struggle over their terrifying legacy (U.S. News 8/17/98)
    -ESSAY : The wisdom of  J. Robert Oppenheimer (Integrity)
    -ESSAY : DID OPPENHEIMER REALLY HELP MOSCOW? A former Soviet spy's story draws fire from critics, who insist it contains errors and inconsistencies (GEORGE J. CHURCH, May 1994, TIME)
    -ESSAY : 1953 : Oppenheimer's Fall (Jon Blackwell,  The Trentonian)
    -ESSAY : Theory of Fielding (H. B. Laes)
    -ESSAY : Atomic Espionage and Its Soviet "Witnesses" (Vladislav Zubok, Cold War International History Project)
    -ESSAY : The Sudoplatov File : Flimsy Memories (Priscilla Johnson McMillan, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

    -SPY CASES - UNITED STATES :  Atomic Bomb Spies
    -ESSAY : The Selling of the KGB : The post-Cold War world is awash in tantalizing tales from the KGB archives. But the new literature on Soviet espionage may be much less revealing than it appears. (Amy Knight , Wilson Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Romerstein/Breindel Revelations in The Venona Secrets Soviet Penetration of the U.S. Gets Fresh Look (Allan H. Ryskind, Human Events)
    -ESSAY : Romerstein Documents Soviet Espionage in U.S.  (Jennifer G. Hickey, Insight)
    -ESSAY : Disloyalty As a Principle: Why Communists Spied : During the 1930s and especially during World War II, some Communists felt they served a greater cause by spying for the Soviet Union.  (Maurice Isserman)
    -ESSAY : IN THE BEGINNING : The origin of nuclear secrecy  (Peter J. Westwick, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)
    -ARTICLE : Love letters suggest Einstein affair with spy (June 2, 1998, AP)
    -BOOKNOTES : Title: Allen Weinstein Author: The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage In America--The Stalin Era Air Date: March 14, 1999 (C-SPAN)
    -REVIEW : of THE HAUNTED WOOD Soviet Espionage in America -- the Stalin Era. By Allen Weinstein (Joseph E. Persico, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin  (Joseph E. Persico, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Venona : Decoding Soviet Espionage in America By John Earl Haynes and  Harvey Klehr ( Rorin M. Platt, American Diplomacy)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : The VENONA Progeny (CI Centre Professor Hayden B. Peake)

    -Atomic Bomb Decision (Gene Dannen)
    -The Atomic Bomb: a Presidential Decision : A webquest for Highschool Students  (Michael Thompson)
    -Atomic Bomb (Simon Wiesenthal Center)
    -INTERVIEW : The Fire Still Burns. An interview with historian Gar Alperovitz. The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima has shaped the American psyche and the global landscape for 50 years. How will we transcend its effect? (Sojourners Magazine, August 1995)
    -ESSAY : Alonzo L. Hamby, "The Decision to Drop the Bomb," (Journal of American History, September 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb (Louis Morton)
    -LINKS : Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy : Hiroshima

    -INFO : Oppenheimer (1980) (TV-MINI) (Imdb)
    -INFO : The Day After Trinity (1980) (Imdb)
    -INFO : Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) (Imdb)
    -REVIEW : of Fat Man and Little Boy (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)