New Mexico. Ancient ruins of vanished Native Americans. Desolate spaces and tumbleweeds crossing the highway. Snow-capped mountains. Little bars with menus listing hundreds of different brands of tequila. And two of our country’s national laboratories, Los Alamos and Sandia. Los Alamos was established as a secret center of research for atomic weapons during World War II. In the years following the end of the war, Sandia was established for further weapons testing, but its mission is now focused on developing and testing non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The mission of Los Alamos is now one of supporting a broad range of interdisciplinary research covering national security, nuclear fusion, supercomputing, and other areas.
Secrets permeate these facilities as easily as unshielded radioactivity, and are just as invisible to the naked eye. And they can be just as dangerous. In Joseph Kanon’s literary thriller Los Alamos, set in the final months of World War II, the secrets are not all military. There are clandestine meetings with Communist sympathizers, lover’s trysts in the desert, and personal histories that many would like to keep from the watchful eyes of government security. I was drawn to the book, and willing to give it a go, because I’ve visited New Mexico’s national labs. I’m familiar with the countryside, from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque to the views from Sandia Peak, from the historic Plaza of Santa Fe to the Anasazi ruins at Bandelier National Monument (the location of an unpublished story of mine). Sure, it’s fun for a fantasy reader to be plopped down in the middle of an invented landscape, but sometimes reading a story where you know the locale well can be even more fun.
Kanon gives us a murder mystery based largely in Los Alamos during the final stages of the development of the bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki and bring World War II to an end. Needless to say, neither the scientists nor the military involved in developing the atomic bomb were pleased to know that one of their own could be murdered. The story of how this mystery is solved spans many pages but kept me glued to the page - not a requirement for me to give a book my blessing, but certainly an indication of how much I enjoyed reading it.