cover image Los Alamos

Los Alamos

Joseph Kanon. Broadway Books, $25 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-553-06224-3

It's always pleasing to publishing folk when one of their own turns a hand successfully to writing; and there will be general rejoicing that Kanon, former head of trade publishing at Houghton Mifflin, has made a smashing debut as a novelist in what is also Broadway's fictional launch. Los Alamos is the work of a natural writer, an intricately plotted, highly atmospheric and stunningly authentic tale set on the remote New Mexico hilltop near Santa Fe where the scientists of the Manhattan Project are developing the atom bomb during the closing months of WWII. It begins with the discovery of the body of Karl Bruner, a security man on ""The Hill,"" apparently the victim of a homosexual encounter that went badly wrong in a Santa Fe park. Enter Michael Connolly, an Army Intelligence officer called in to see whether Bruner's death involved any security risk in the top-secret installation. He soon becomes involved in the intense, hermetic life of this strange place, populated by earnest, dedicated scientists who have little sense of the dread potential of their planned weapon, other than the fact that it could hasten the end of the war. He also falls for Emma Pawlowski, the dashing, witty and sometimes enigmatic English wife of one of the emigre scientists; and it is a high tribute to Kanon that their romance, which seems at first a diversion, is as appealing and intensely involving as his thriller plot. In any case, nothing is wasted here, and Emma soon plays a highly significant part in Connolly's bold and risky scheme to unmask what seems to be a high-level case of espionage, involving one of the most trusted scientists close to project director J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. Kanon's use of Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves and some of the other real-life people in the book, is exemplary; he has created characters who are both true to their actual selves and three-dimensional actors in a convincing fiction. His villains are profoundly human and horribly plausible;, the real life-and-death issues of that time and place are thoughtfully set forth;, and the book is crammed with the kind of utterly believable details it would seem impossible for someone who was only a child in 1945 to have created. There is a tingling climax (yes, you do get to see the first bomb go off) and an ending full of the most poignant irony for anyone who remembers what happened later to Oppenheimer. This is a thinking person's thriller that makes wonderful use of, but never cheapens, one of history's more extraordinary moments. $150,000 ad/promo; author tour; foreign rights sold in seven countries; author tour. (May)