Los Alamos

Los Alamos

by Joseph Kanon

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Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon

In a dusty, remote community of secretly constructed buildings and awesome possibility, the world's most brilliant minds have come together. Their mission: to split an atom and end a war. But among those who have come to Robert Oppenheimer's "enchanted campus" of foreign-born scientists, baffled guards, and restless wives is a simple man, an unraveler of human secrets—a man in search of a killer.

It is the spring of 1945. And Michael Connolly has been sent to Los Alamos to investigate the murder of a security officer on the Manhattan Project. But amid the glimmering cocktail parties and the staggering genius, Connolly will find more than he bargained for. Sleeping in a dead man's bed and making love to another man's wife, Connolly has entered the moral no-man's-land of Los Alamos. For in this place of discovery and secrecy, hope and horror, Connolly is plunged into a shadowy war with a killer—as the world is about to be changed forever....

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440224075
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/02/1998
Pages: 517
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.33(d)

About the Author

Joseph Kanon is the internationally bestselling author of eight novels, which have been published in twenty-four languages, including: Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel, The Good German, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, The Prodigal Spy, Alibi, which earned Kanon the Hammett Award of the International Association of Crime Writers, Istanbul Passage, and Leaving Berlin. He is also a recipient of the Anne Frank Human Writers Award for his writings on the aftermath of the Holocaust. He lives in New York City with his wife, literary agent Robin Straus. They have two sons.

Read an Excerpt

A Mrs. Rosa Ortiz  found the body.  She was used to getting up with the sun, but this morning she was early, too early even for mass, so she took the long way, cutting through the park along the Alameda, where mist was still rising from the old riverbed.   If she had been hurrying she might have missed it, but as it happened she was walking slowly, enjoying the first light.  She had not heard it rain during the night, so the moisture on the trees surprised her, and she stopped once to look at the shine on the leaves.  The sky was already a sharp cloudless blue, promising heat.  It was when she glanced down from the sky, temporarily blinded, that she saw the shoes.

The legs were sticking out from the bushes, and her first impulse was to hurry away and let him sleep it off.  Pobrecito, too drunk to come in out of the rain, she thought as she passed.  But it was a disgrace all the same, sleeping by the Alameda, like the Indians hunched over in the plaza, pretending to sell blankets.  Then she stopped and turned around.  The legs were wrong, twisted one on top of the other.  No one could sleep like that.  She moved closer to the bush, slowly pushed a branch aside, then gasped.  In that second she took in the head, splotched red from the blood, with its mouth fixed open, still trying to draw in air.  It was the only recognizable feature left in his face.  But what shocked her was his body.  The trousers had been pulled down below the knees, exposing his genitals. Why?  Mrs. Ortiz had not seen a man since her husband died and never one in public.  It seemed incomprehensible to her, this exposure of flesh.  She clutched her shawl and, in a gesture centuries old, crossed herself.  This was what evil felt like; you could feel it around you, taste it in the air.  The ground itself might be soaked with blood, spreading under her.  Dizzy, she grabbed the bush to steady herself, but the branch shook its drops onto the body, spattering rain on his private parts, and she backed away.  She took little gulps of air and looked around her, expecting to be attacked, as if the scene before her had just happened.  But there was no one.  The noise in her head was her own breathing.  The Alameda itself was quiet and fresh with morning.  The world had not noticed.

She hurried toward the cathedral, her mind a jumble.  She knew she should tell the police, but her English was poor and what would they think?  The man was Anglo, she could tell that from her shameful glance at his body, and that might mean even more trouble.  Perhaps it was best to say nothing--no one had seen her, after all.  Someone else was bound to find him and go to the police.  But now she kept seeing the body in front of her, naked, exposed.  She had not even had the decency to cover him.  And of course God had seen her.  So she decided, as so often in the past, to talk to the priest.

But Father Bernardo was already preparing for mass when she arrived and she couldn't interrupt that, so she knelt with the others and waited.  The congregation was small, the usual group of old women draped in shawls, atoning for blameless lives.  Her neighbors must have felt that she was especially devout that morning, for she prayed noisily and sometimes even seemed to sway. Surrounded by candles, the familiar words, the solid feel of her beads, she began to feel calmer, but the feeling of disquiet would not go away.  She had done nothing, but now somehow she had the ache of a guilty secret.  Why had she looked at him so long?  This was what bothered her most.  She should have turned her eyes away; there was nothing so remarkable about a man, not even one without a foreskin.  But she had never seen this before, and it troubled her that in all that scene of horror, this was what she had noticed.  No one would have to know that, certainly not Father Bernardo.  She would not have to describe the body; it would be enough to say she saw a dead man.  If she said anything at all.

So it was another hour before Mrs. Ortiz approached the priest with her story and another hour after that before he telephoned the police, in English, and a car was dispatched.  By that time the dew had dried along the Alameda and the day was hot.

Sergeant O'Neill had never seen a corpse before.  There had been murders in Santa Fe, mostly Mexicans with knives solving domestic arguments, but he had never been assigned one.  The last real murder, during a jewel robbery, had happened while he was fishing in the mountains.  So the man in the park was his first official corpse, and it made him sick.

"You all right, Tom?" Chief Holliday asked him while the photographers snapped pictures.  Inevitably, Holliday was "Doc."

O'Neill nodded, embarrassed.  "He's a mess, all right.  Where's Doc Ritter, anyway?  Don't you think we should cover him up?"

Chief Holliday was crouched near the body, turning the head with a stick he'd picked up.

"Don't be so squeamish--he doesn't mind.  Christ, look at this." The back of the man's head was crusted over with blood and pulp.  "Here's where he got it. The face looks like decoration--maybe a few good kicks, just for the hell of it."

O'Neill was writing on his pad.  "Weapon."

"A blunt instrument.  What do you think?"

"Blunt instrument."

"Hammer, wrench, could have been anything.  Anyway, it cracked his skull. Funny, though, there's not much blood around.  You'd think to look at him he wouldn't have any left."

"It rained last night.  Maybe it washed away."

"Maybe.  No ID.  Boys find anything further along?"

"Nothing.  They've been checking up and down the Alameda.  Broken bushes here where we found him, but that's it.  Can't you at least shut his mouth?"

Holliday looked up and grinned.  "Not now I can't.  Take it easy, O'Neill. Once the doc gets here, we'll haul him off.  You get used to it."


"No wallet, I suppose?  Keys?  Anything?"

"Not a thing."

"Great.  John Doe for sure."


"Yeah?" Holliday said distractedly, turning the head back gently.

"What about the pants?"

"What about them?"

"I mean, what the hell is a guy doing in the park at night with his pants down?"

"What would anybody be doing?  Taking a leak, probably."

"No.  You don't pull your pants down below your knees to take a leak."

Holliday looked at him, amused.  "You'll make detective yet, Tommy.  Sounds right to me."

"Well, then--"

"Look, a guy's out at night in the park bushes.  He's got his pants down and his head kicked in.  What the hell do you think happened?"

"You mean like that guy in Albuquerque?  We never had nothing like that here."

"We do now.  Pretty sight, isn't it?" Holliday said, gesturing toward the man's groin.  "Looks like he's been kicked there too." He moved the testicles to one side with the stick.  "A little discolored, don't you think?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Well, what color are yours?  Come to think of it, maybe they're blue too. Anyway, they shouldn't look like this.  He's circumcised, by the way."

"I noticed."

"I mean for the report."

"Oh," O'Neill said, jotting it down.  "Time of death?"

"We'd better let the doc tell us that.  You got rigor, but I don't know what effect the rain would have on that.  Cold too, last night."

"I can't remember that far back," O'Neill said, wiping his forehead in the unexpected heat.

"This is interesting," Holliday said, poking tentatively at the man's mouth. "He's got a full plate here.  No teeth at all.  Kinda young for false teeth."

O'Neill shrugged.

"Well, now at least we got a motive.  Probably isn't used to them and bit down too hard on the guy's dick."

"Jesus, Doc."

By the time the coroner arrived, O'Neill had already completed the area search. "Shame about the rain.  I'll get Fred to look downstream just in case anything got thrown in the river.  Like his wallet."

"Yeah, if God wants to throw you a bone this week," Holliday said.  "Don't figure on the wallet.  Keys, though.  Funny, taking his keys."

"What have you got here, Ben?" Doc Ritter said, using Holliday's real name. "Been a long time since I've been called out on a murder."

"Well, you tell me.  Careful of the clothes, though--I'm still hoping to get some prints."

"After the rain?"

"Well, I can hope.  We sure don't have much else.  John Doe with his head smashed in and his pants down."

The coroner looked at him.

"Yeah, I know.  Sounds like that case down in Albuquerque.  I guess the papers will be all over us, but let's try to keep them out of it until I can talk to the boys down there.  We could use a head start."


On Thursday, July 10, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Joseph Kanon, author of LOS ALAMOS.

OnlineHost: Joseph Kanon, the former head of trade publishing at Houghton Mifflin, has made a smashing debut as a novelist with LOS ALAMOS, an intricate tale set on the remote hilltop near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where scientists of the Manhattan Project developed the atom bomb during the closing months of World War II. LOS ALAMOS is a powerful novel of historical intrigue.

JainBN: Welcome Mr. Kanon and thank you for joining us this afternoon.

Joseph Kanon: Glad to be here.

JainBN: I'm going to turn the mike over to our audience.

Joseph Kanon:

Question: What were some of your early jobs in publishing? How did you come into the industry?

Joseph Kanon: I began as a manuscript reader for The Atlantic magazine while I was still an undergraduate. One thing led to another. Eventually, I ended up as head of the Trade Division of Houghton Mifflin.

Question: Do you identify on a personal level with Michael Connolly, or any other of your

Joseph Kanon: Only up to a point. In one sense, all writing is autobiographical, but in no way is his story similar to mine. I did empathize with Oppenheimer's bureaucratic duties, having had similar ones myself. Otherwise, the people are themselves.

Question: Has your perspective on the writer's life changed since undertaking the task of writing novel? Have you been disillusioned at all, or pleasantly surprised?

Joseph Kanon: I didn't know I would like the process so much. I had imagined it to be solitary and frustrating, so it was a surprise to discover how pleasurable it could be to live in one's imagination. As for the publishing process, it's obviously different on the other side of the desk, but I was lucky in my publishers, so it's been a wonderful experience.

Question: Will you be writing more fiction in the future? Are you working on anything right now?

Joseph Kanon: Yes. I'm about halfway through my next book --- similar format historical intrigue. It's a genre that works for me.

Question: What kind of man was Oppenheimer? Did you feel as though you came to know him?

Joseph Kanon: Yes and no. Of course, in one sense everyone is unknowable, but I found him a fascinating character, so much so that my original plan for him in the book --- one speaking scene --- changed dramatically in the writing. I realize that a lot of my fascination with the Manhattan Project itself was really a fascination with him. I don't know how close my character is to the 'real' Oppenheimer, but I would love to think that I got him at least partly right. I have mixed feelings about using real characters in fiction --- I think we have an obligation to follow the historical record as closely as we can --- the rest is up to imagination and luck.

Question: What would you say to any younger person that wants to be a publisher ?

Joseph Kanon: It's a wonderful business but very slow in the starting, so you have to stick with it, especially when all your classmates are pulling down hefty starting salaries and you seem to have no money at all. In this sense, the business hasn't changed very much, alas.

Question: When did you begin writing the manuscript and about how long did it take you to write it?

Joseph Kanon: It was surprisingly --- and, I think, uncharacteristically --- quick. The first draft took about 6 months. Then a few more months rewriting and polishing, etc. The new book is taking longer, so I suspect most of the speed with Los Alamos was because it was so subject-driven I was fascinated by the Manhattan Project and what the place itself was like.

Question: What effect will the Internet and CD-ROMS have on Publishing? Is "paper" publishing endangered?

Joseph Kanon: I wish I knew (and so does everyone else in publishing). I suspect that for at least the foreseeable future, however, paper will be very much with us. It's cheap, it's portable, it's personal, and everyone's used to it. Still, who knows?

Question: Have there been any recent investigations into the penetration of Soviet Spies into the Manhattan Project?

Joseph Kanon: Not to my knowledge. One of the things that motivated my writing this story, however, was the release, in the summer of '95, of the Venona Decrypts --- these were decoded Soviet communiqués intercepted during the last years of the war. What they revealed was a Soviet attempt to penetrate the Project that was much wider than I had ever suspected. The New York Times, covering the release, claimed that as many as 200 agents may have been assigned to the Project. Now, for all we know, most of them were bag couriers in Washington. But it was a liberating moment for a writer. We don't know who all of them were --- so perhaps one Might have been at Los Alamos itself. This was important to me, because I didn't want to write a roman a clef about Klaus Fuchs and the spies whose stories we already knew.

Question: Did you come across anything in your research on the Manhattan Project that you had not anticipated? Was there anything especially surprising?

Joseph Kanon: Oddly enough, the thing that surprised me most (and perhaps it shouldn't have) was how young everyone was. The average age at L.A. was 27. Oppenheimer himself was only in his mid-thirties at the time. It was a young man's town (and young woman's), complete with all the energy and idealism (and baby boom) one associates with the age.

Question: What kind of editorial criticism did you receive for Los Alamos? Did you follow it?

Joseph Kanon: Yes. Having been an editor myself, I take editing seriously. If your editor says a line sounds off, then it IS off, at least to him, and one better look at it. And, of course, in this particular case, when historical accuracy is involved, you're grateful for a sharp editorial eye. You want things to be accurate. I asked my English editor to pay particular attention to Emma's dialogue (an English woman). She said, but it was 50 years ago, people talked differently. Well, imagine your mother talking, then, I said.

Question: Did you visit Los Alamos and Sante Fe to do research?

Joseph Kanon: Yes, but not specifically to do the research. I'd been to Los Alamos before, as an interested tourist, and found myself there again in the summer of '95, which is when the idea for the book came to me. The city now is completely modern --- nothing of Los Alamos 1945 remains (except for one building, now the historical museum) --- so you have to imagine it. When I was on tour for the book, I went to Santa Fe and spoke to an audience almost all of whom were from Los Alamos --- something I'd been dreading, because I was sure they were going to tell me I had the streets going in the wrong direction and such, but they were generous and very kind about the book.

Comment: Excellent book. When will the movie be out?

Joseph Kanon: Thanks. Well, many are optioned, but few are made. If all goes without a hitch, it could be Fall 98, but between now and then are the usual million things that could go wrong. I'd love to see a film version, however, so here's hoping.

Question: Can you offer any useful advice from your time spent inside the publishing world --- about what it takes to make a bestseller?

Joseph Kanon: I suppose the most difficult thing is simply getting people's attention --- there are so many demands from so many different sources. And the fact is, nobody really knows what makes a book sell --- we all know in hindsight, or think we do, but one is never a preparation for the next. It's always been my opinion, however, that hype is ephemeral and what really matters is word of mouth. Unfortunately for publishers, but luckily for readers, this can't be manufactured. The audience still controls the process.

Question: Do you think the face of fiction has changed since the dissolution of the Cold War?

Joseph Kanon: No. Certain genre writers lost an immediate 'enemy' and certainly the world doesn't divide itself as neatly into good guys v. bad guys, but that's always been true. It has had one unexpected effect, however, which is to make one wonder what all the chest-beating was about. In some odd way, it diminishes our recent history, or perhaps I should say our fictional treatment of it.

Question: Why did you decide to write a partially fictionalized, rather than wholly factual account of the Manhattan Project?

Joseph Kanon: I'm not an historian --- I had always intended to write a novel. And in this particular case, a definitive book already exists Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. No one, I think, will ever top that. But it never occurred to me to try. I was much more interested in what it was like there in 1945, what the scientists thought about what they were doing, how people lived day to day. I read many scientific memoirs, but what I really wanted to know was how did you do laundry? What was the rent? How did people spend their days? And, of course, most importantly, how did they sort through the conflicted feelings --- the excitement of discovery on the one hand, and the appalling legacy that was created on the other.

JainBN: This will be our last question for Mr. Kanon . . .

Joseph Kanon:

Question: How is your publishing career reflected in your fiction, or in the writing of your fiction? Did you have a particular audience in mind while you were writing?

Joseph Kanon: No. I can't speak for all writers, but my strong hunch is that essentially you write for yourself and hope that someone else likes what you do. I began the book as a conventional 'thriller,' partly because I like to read them myself, partly because they give a beginning writer a good story architecture, and partly because the subject lent itself to the form. But it soon became --- I hope --- something else. What I wanted to do was write a story with the entertainment value of a 40s movie, but which would also be "about" something; ask some questions, etc. I suppose if there were a model for this it would be close to what Graham Greene used to do --- a story that had the underpinnings of moral issues. Anyway, that's what I hope people will take from it.

Comment: I had read Rhodes book, looked forward to yours, and loved it. Congratulations!

Joseph Kanon:

JainBN: We couldn't agree with that reader more. Thank you for joining us, Mr. Kanon.

Joseph Kanon: Thank you --- the best sort of compliment.

JainBN: And please come again, upon the publication of you next book. Thank you!

Joseph Kanon: Wow.

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Los Alamos 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this fictionalized version of life at the Los Alamos as The Manhattan project came to fore. The author created interesting characters and put them in a fascinating setting. I came to to the book after reading his alter novels. There were moments where things slowed down a bit much, but that seemed in keeping with the pace of events at Los Alamos. I can't say that the womanizing investigator appealed to me all that much. One thing Kanon did was include a homosexual subplot where he kept the spirit of the bigotry of the day without pandering to it, and indicated that he certainly didn't agree with it. Nicely done that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Fact+Fiction = one of the best novels that I have read in a long time. This is truly one of those stories that draw you in right from the start and holds you to the very last page. Kanon could write a series of novels on this main character--Mike Connolly. Go out and buy this book. You will LOVE it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kanon took one of the most interesting and fascinating event in modern american history and put a mystery in it, and then put a love story in that (which was probably the weakest sub-plot of the book). but i'd say it was more of an espionage story. kanon did an excellent job.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very Slow. Story dragged on forever. Couldn't wait for it to end. The hero didn't solve anything. Everything just fell into his lap.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This murder mystery draws in larger ethical questions about good and evil.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A very human drama plays out against the backdrop of the one of the most important projects in human history. The lives of a small group of people affect millions across the globe.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing 5 days ago
Kanon's become one of my favorites for the plot and the history that he weaves together. This is a well-written book with fascinating characters, and it draws you in from the beginning. This might be something you would have picked up at the grocerystore when it first came out, but I'd argue it's strong literary suspense with history and enjoyment in the bargain.
corgidog2 on LibraryThing 12 days ago
This is the story of the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. It is readable, but not compelling.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Because I lived in Los Alamos several years I enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions of the area. Stories about real events and places are most enjoyable.
Anonymous 10 months ago
I enjoyed this fictional accounting of one of the spying undercurrents at Los AL during the Manhattan Project. Having read the biography of J Robert Oppenheimer - An American Prometheus and The Haunted Wood about spying in Cold War, many of the story lines rang very close to actual events at the New Mexico facilities and post war treatment of Oppenheimer. In the end, it is an improbable love story with lots of local color. A good read all in all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The mystery part of the story is well designed and written but the love interest is nothing but boring interference like T v commercials.
KaneH More than 1 year ago
I confess that a fair number of modern mysteries are all too similar, and thus boring- but not this one. The mystery is set against the final days of the Manhattan Project, before they detonated the atomic bomb that changed the world. Actual people make appearances as characters in the story, a technique done rather well here- they're not just backdrop, but real human beings. The background research is evident, but is not overbearing, serving to advance the story instead of clogging it up with too much detail. We get a very clear view of the paranoia and security involved in the project. Imagine if there had been a real murder, and what a nightmare that would have been, since no one was even admitting there was a secret government facility operating there. The mystery goes along at a good clip, and only loses a point or two for a car chase the book could have done without. A well-told tale, showing a slice of history that fascinates and educates as it entertains. Top marks.
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Rules: dont attack bloodclan, our allies, or freinds............ map: 1 rules and map 2 main camp 3 bios 4 meeting place