Patti Abbott is celebrating the fifth anniversary of Friday's "Forgotten" Books, so I thought I'd repost my very first offering from 2008 in honor of the event:
When Patti Abbott asked me to contribute to "Forgotten Book Friday," I considered what that meant exactly. Except for a few landmark works in crime fiction history, most folks probably can't name titles or even the plots of books, aside from a handful like The Big Sleep, Maltese Falcoln, or Murder on the Orient Express. Even many readers of the genre might be hard pressed to remember a large number of other tiles. So in that sense, most books are "forgotten," eventually.
This left me with thousands upon thousands of books to write about, and not being that decisive, I went with a topic of recent interest. The hubster had fondly remembered a TV series called Oppenheimer from 1982 starring Sam Waterston and David Suchet among others, which had long been unavailable on video in any format. When it recently came out on DVD, he arranged to get it and we watched it together. Since the hubster has a physics background and has long been fascinated with the Manhattan Project, it seemed like a good parallel to read the book Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon. Yes, it was a bestseller and yes, it did receive the Edgar for Best First Novel in 1998, but I doubt that 95% of Americans could recall it.
Kanon certainly wasn't shy about taking on some of the darkest days and most pivotal moments in the planet's history as the background for a mystery. And I say mystery, because although it's been classified as a "thriller," it really doesn't fit the current style of thrillers; it's relatively slow-paced through the first half, the murderer isn't known until near the end, and the writing style pays as much homage to a "literary" work like John Banville as it does a typical spy thriller. Those who have become accustomed to the short-chapter format of a James Patterson or Dan Brown will probably want to hurl the book across the room.
In an interview as to why he chose the setting, Kanon said, "What fascinated me was that the place didn't officially exist. I thought: What would happen if there were a crime in a place that didn't exist?" And so the story hinges on a fictional protagonist, civilian intelligence liaison Michael Connolly, brought in to investigate the murder of a Los Alamos security officer, his face bashed in and his pants pulled down. Connolly is asked to discover whether the crime is more than the violent sex crime it appears to be, even while those associated with the project, paranoid over security leaks and the specter of Communists everywhere, would prefer it be just that. Nice and tidy. Of course it isn't nice and tidy, and Connolly's dogged determination to pursue the truth to the bitter end, no matter how bitter it turns out to be, carries him through acts of betrayal from all sides and his own growing interest and eventual affair with the wife of one of the Los Alamos scientists.
The more restless and impatient readers will get a bit bogged down in Kanon's occasionally dense prose (not I, though), but he has some nice evocations of the tug-of-war of emotions that existed between the project's scientists and their almost abstract view of the war and the ultimate horror of the project's true purpose. But many of those same scientists had fled the Nazis in Europe, so they knew of more personal horrors they'd left behind. Connolly at one point thinks,
At another point, where he attends one of the many parties that were organized to keep everyone grounded, Connolly notes that
To be honest, the plot was fairly easy to figure out, at times almost taking a back seat to the setting, some might quibble with the love interest feeling a bit unnecessary, and a few of the local characters lean a tad toward the cliched. But the setting, in both New Mexico and Los Alamos, is very detailed and well researched (although I'll have to wait until the physics hubster reads the book to let me know about scientific errors). The most enjoyable aspect in many ways is the interaction between Connolly as a fictional character with the real-life Oppenheimer and General Groves, woven together neatly within the framework of the events leading up to the Trinity test in the desert on that fateful day on July 16, 1945.
As to why books like this should be read, it's not purely entertainment. In light of the current Middle East mess and a reheating of the Cold War sentiments with Russia, it's good to keep reminding ourselves of how much is at stake when political charisma, cultural apathy, and a collective arrogance rule the day.