© 1997 Joseph Kanon
A man lies dead in Santa Fe, but the answer to ‘whodunit’ lies in the hills above the city — or on The Hill, the site of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where something very mysterious is being cooked up. The Hill’s residents, many of them foreign scientists, are not even known by name; if a local sheriff asks them for their I.D., the card they present merely has a number. They are the creators of the most secret project in human history, and easily one of the most expensive: the Manhattan Project. To find out who killed the man, and why, Army Intelligence PR man Mike Connolly must get inside the most secret place on the planet. Los Alamos is a murder mystery turned spy thriller, set in the last year of the Second World War, when man took Death in his hands and released it on the desert.
The story unfolds over the course of several months, Connolly working in secret after the ‘official’ cause of death is a romantic pickup turned violent. Though Connolly has arrived on the Hill to penetrate its secrets and find a murderer, he soon creates secrets of his own, beginning an affair with a bored scientist-wife, an English rose who occupies her free time studying the Anasazi. Working with local cops and sometimes against the government, which is rightfully obsessively secretive about the Project, Connolly struggles to connect the dots of a very mysterious murder. The man’s death carries with it enormous scandal, not just because he was a security agent on the Hill, but because his body was arranged to make it look like a sexual liason gone very wrong. Ultimately the resolution of the murder isn’t love, but power — the power the United States is working to perfect, power other nations want to share.
I have read Kanon before, starting with his The Good German, and found it dark indeed. Los Alamos isn’t nearly as dreary, though an isolated mesa in wartime doesn’t lend itself to much merriment. I did enjoy the way Kanon slow-cooks the plot, minor details acquired over months creating a larger picture when they’re assembled together. In a way it reminded me of NCIS, in that a character who seems rather minor turns out to be the missing piece: in NCIS, there’s a rule of thumb that an adult who appears and is then forgotten about is usually the murderer. I think Kanon captures the wartime feel well enough, a mix of optimism, wariness, and horror as the Nazis are drive back, but their retreat exposes the full horror of their ideology to the world. It succeeds as a mystery-thriller, though as usual I could have gone without the bedroom play-by-play.
Engima, Robert Harris. Also WW2 spy thriller.