Title: Los Alamos
Author: Joseph Kanon
Kanon, Joseph (1997). Los Alamos: a novel. New York: Broadway Books
PS3561.A476 L6 1997
Date Posted: November 1, 2017
Review by Lawrence Thornton
“A Mrs. Rosa Ortiz found the body”. The flat, casual tone established by the indefinite article opening Los Alamos”—patented by the grandfathers of noir and imitated by countless successors—signals us that the novel we are about to read is a detective thriller whose narrative possibilities will be limited by formulas of the genre. But the job of such books is to amuse us, and that is exactly what Joseph Kanon does in this first novel, a tale of murder set against the backdrop of the Manhattan Project. From the discovery of the body on the first page through the machinations of plot that culminate in a car chase across the New Mexico desert, Mr. Kanon manipulates the familiar elements of delay, false leads, cold trails and hot sex in the service of a diverting, if occasionally long-winded, entertainment.
Los Alamos takes place in the spring of 1945. Scientists are working day and night to complete the first atomic bomb before the Germans and Japanese do. To that end, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and a sprinkling of other geniuses populate a town that has no official existence. If you want to get in touch with someone there, you send a letter to a post office box in Santa Fe.
The highest level of security is maintained behind the fences of Los Alamos. Outside, however, events spin out of control when Karl Bruner, a security officer and refugee from Europe, is found murdered in Santa Fe, possibly the victim of a homosexual encounter gone bad. The question is whether his death is merely a private tragedy or a sign of espionage. Has the Manhattan Project been compromised? Since Washington fears that a public scandal could shut down the project, the truth needs to be ferreted out quickly. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army commander of Los Alamos, one of several characters cloned from historical figures, calls in Michael Connolly, an intelligence officer who replaces Bruner and begins an undercover investigation.
Determined though he is to track down the killer, Connolly still has time to become involved with the wife of a scientist working on the project, Emma Pawlowski, a beautiful and mysterious woman whose shadowy past includes a stint of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. When he isn’t bedding Emma in various picturesque positions and locales, Connolly is running into an array of problems. The local sheriff, Doc Holliday, seems only a notch above a hayseed. Scientists and military personnel are reluctant to talk. But Connolly persists, slowly building a theory that whoever smashed Karl Bruner’s skull in is connected to the project.
Although Mr. Kanon is working in a genre that does not especially emphasize character, he does a good job developing Connolly and Emma. Their relationship is plausible, if predictable. He is less successful with others, particularly Oppenheimer, whose historical reality, approaching mythic proportions in the public mind, is too unwieldy for the role assigned him here. The dialogue and action Mr. Kanon invents for him jar against our memory or knowledge of the man. A similar problem interferes with our response to the first atomic explosion. Mr. Kanon’s description of the mushroom cloud and its significance is underwhelming.
The writing in Los Alamos is generally workmanlike, yet there are lapses that weaken the enterprise: “It was when she glanced down from the sky, temporarily blinded, that she saw the shoes.” Of the many clever twists Mr. Kanon works into his story, the most interesting raises such sophisticated ethical questions that I can easily imagine the book freed from its thriller trappings. Little of its real drama would be lost in the service of a deeper inquiry into one of the most chilling moral choices of the 20th century. But in Los Alamos, Mr. Kanon has carefully subordinated his more serious intentions, as well as the inherent complexity of his material, to the demands of nonstop action.
 Lawrence Thornton, “Bomb Squad,” New York Times Books (June 1, 1997), accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/01/reviews/970601.01thorntt.html . Lawrence Thornton’s final novel in the Argentina Trilogy, Tales From the Blue Archives was published in 1997.