Los Alamos

Title:                      Los Alamos

Author:                 Joseph Kanon

Kanon, Joseph (1997). Los Alamos: a novel. New York: Broadway Books

LCCN:    96044055

PS3561.A476 L6 1997

LC Subjects

World War, 1939-1945–New Mexico–Los Alamos–Fiction.

Atomic bomb–Fiction.

Los Alamos (N.M.)–Fiction.

Date Posted:      November 1, 2017

Review by Lawrence Thornton[1]

“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.

[1] 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.


Slow Burner

Title:                      Slow Burner

Author:                 William Haggard

Haggard, William [pseud. for Richard Henry Michael] (1958). Slow Burner. Boston: Little, Brown

LCCN:    58007860

PZ4.C6225 Sl2

Date Posted:      November 29, 2016

William Haggard (11 August 1907–27 October 1993) was the pseudonym of Richard Henry Michael Clayton, an English civil servant and writer of fictional spy thrillers. He was born in Croydon.[1]

His books were set in the 1960s through the 1980s. Like C. P. Snow, he was a quintessentially British establishment figure who had been a civil servant in India, and his books vigorously put forth his perhaps idiosyncratic points of view. The principal character in most of his novels was Colonel Charles Russell of the fictional Security Executive. During the years of the fictional spy mania, initially begun by the James Bond stories, Haggard was considered by most critics to be at the very top of the field.


Slow Burner is a deadly form of nuclear energy, and the leakage of epsilon rays from a suburban villa suggests that it has been stolen—or duplicated—by an informer. Ex-commando Charlie Percival-Smith makes an entree into the house, via its attractive occupant, while a more dangerous game is played out between Sir Jeremy, Permanent Secretary, and William Nichol, physicist on the project, who does not suspect that his life is in jeopardy until it is almost taken. A mild adventure story, the rather meagre elements are disguised by the proprieties of the background and some niceties of style.

[1] From Wikipedia, downloaded November 29, 2016

[2] Kirkus, downloaded November 29, 2016

Bush Baby

Title:                      Bush Baby

Author:                 Martin Woodhouse

Woodhouse, Martin (1968). Bush Baby. New York: Coward-McCann

LCCN:    68017571

PZ4.W8873 Bu

Date Posted:      November 18, 2016


Even if it hasn’t got the snappy action highlights of his earlier Tree Frog[2] (1966; p. 647) this establishes Mr. Woodhouse as a precise, controlled espionalogical spy spinner. This time Dr. Yeoman finds himself with one dead scientist and one seemingly uncomplicated lazar beam. But Bush Baby turns out to be an atomic bomb that can really be under home control in the most literal sense. There’s a twenty-two-year-old bomb disposal expert livening up the landscape and enough up-tight fall-outs to keep an audience from lazar-faire.

[1] Kirkus, downloaded November 18, 2016

[2] Woodhouse, Martin (1966). Tree Frog. New York, Coward-McCann

Atomic Audit

Title:                      Atomic Audit

Author:                  Stephen I. Schwartz

Schwartz, Stephen I. (1998), ed. Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press

LOC:       98019746

U264.3 .A874 1998

Date Posted:      March 14, 2013

Since 1945, the United States has manufactured and deployed more than 70,000 nuclear weapons to deter and if necessary fight a nuclear war. Some observers believe the absence of a third world war confirms that these weapons were a prudent and cost-effective response to the uncertainty and fear surrounding the Soviet Union’s military and political ambitions during the cold war. As early as 1950, nuclear weapons were considered relatively inexpensive providing “a bigger bang for a buck”and were thoroughly integrated into U.S. forces on that basis. Yet this assumption was never validated.

Indeed, for more than fifty years scant attention has been paid to the enormous costs of this effort, more than $5 trillion thus far, and its short and long-term consequences for the nation. Based on four years of extensive research, Atomic Audit is the first book to document the comprehensive costs of U.S. nuclear weapons, assembling for the first time anywhere the actual and estimated expenditures for the program since its creation in 1940. The authors provide a unique perspective on U.S. nuclear policy and nuclear weapons, tracking their development from the Manhattan Project of World War II to the present day and assessing each aspect of the program, including research, development, testing, and production; deployment; command, control, communications, and intelligence; and defensive measures.

They also examine the costs of dismantling nuclear weapons, the management and disposal of large quantities of toxic and radioactive wastes left over from their production, compensation for persons harmed by nuclear weapons activities, nuclear secrecy, and the economic implications of nuclear deterrence. Using archival and newly declassified government documents and data, this richly documented book demonstrates how a variety of factors the open-ended nature of nuclear deterrence, faulty assumptions about the cost-effectiveness of nuclear weapons, regular misrepresentation of, and overreaction to, the Soviet threat.

The desire to maintain nuclear superiority, bureaucratic and often arbitrary decisions, pork barrel politics, and excessive secrecy, all drove the acquisition of an arsenal far larger than what many contemporary civilian and military leaders deemed necessary. These factors also contributed to lax financial oversight of the entire effort by Congress and the executive branch. Atomic Audit concludes with recommendations for strengthening atomic accountability and fostering greater public understanding of nuclear weapons programs and policies.

Contributing authors are Bruce G. Blair, The Brookings Institution; Thomas S. Blanton and William Burr, the National Security Archive; Steven M. Kosiak, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Robert S. Norris, Natural Resources Defense Council; Kevin O’Neill, Institute for Science and International Security; John Pike, Federation of American Scientists;