Los Alamos

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

It is the spring of 1945 and scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, are rushing to complete preparations for testing the United States’ first atomic bomb. Karl Bruner, one of the project’s security officers is discovered murdered in a public park in nearby Santa Fe. Is he the victim of a violent sexual encounter, as it first appears, or is his death somehow connected to the bomb project? Michael Connolly, the intelligence officer charged with investigating the case, discovers that a murder investigation is extraordinarily difficult and confusing in a community where secrecy is the paramount rule.

Joseph Kanon’s first novel is intricately plotted, and Michael Connolly, the skeptical journalist-turned-intelligence officer, makes an ideal protagonist. Connolly is a draftee, not a career officer. Thus, when he is called in by General Leslie Groves, the Army commander in charge of Los Alamos, Connolly has no qualms about conducting a covert investigation outside of the usual channels. Groves wants the case solved, but he also wants to avoid a formal military investigation, which is guaranteed to disrupt and delay his scientists’ critical work. Connolly’s assignment is to solve the case—but more importantly to do it without attracting any attention from Washington, D.C. or the local authorities.

Connolly’s investigation remains at an impasse until he precipitously begins an affair with Emma, the beautiful, enigmatic wife of one of the emigre atomic scientists. This breach of ethics and security opens the way for Connolly into the web of past associations, tangled sex lives, and conflicted loyalties that lie behind Karl Bruner’s murder.

Although the core of LOS ALAMOS is a well-plotted murder mystery, the solution to which involves uncovering a spy inside one of the United States’ most secret wartime projects, this is more than simple genre fiction. Kanon’s tale is very effectively character-driven. Both the fictional creations and the historical figures who populate these pages are interesting, complex, and three-dimensional. In addition, the first-time author’s sensual descriptions of the heat and light and shadow of the New Mexico landscape make the beautiful desert desolation come alive for the reader.