Joseph Kanon

The Prodigal Spy, Joseph Kanon

Island, 1998, 537 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22534-5

I don’t remember being particularly enthusiastic about Joseph Kanon’s first novel, Los Alamos, and for a good reason; thrillers should thrill, not bore. Kanon’s ponderous style, while not devoid of literary merit, certainly dragged down a story which already wasn’t sinning by excessive interest. But who knows? Anything can happen in a first novel. Unfortunately, if The Prodigal Spy proves one thing, it’s that Los Alamos‘s characteristics seem to be completely characteristic of its author’s writing style. Slow. Pondered. Somewhat dull.

Once again, Kanon digs into twentieth-century American history for inspiration. The novel starts at the height of the Eugene McCarthy’s Red Scare, as a boy sees his father being interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The father may or not be a spy, but the boy thinks he’s got the proof of his father’s guilt. So he destroys it. But before anything more can happen, his father leaves into the night and passes on the other side of the Iron Curtain, never to return. His disparition is complicated by the death of a young woman upon whom much depended. For all of the novel’s latter faults, this is a pretty good beginning, especially given the portrait of the anti-Soviet witch-hunt through a boy’s eyes.

Flash-forward more than a decade. The boy, Nick, is now a student on the tumultuous American campuses of the sixties. He’s contacted by a beautiful female journalist; his father has a message for him. He wants to see his son again, but he’ll have to come and see him. In Soviet-controlled Prague.

So we’re off, and most of The Prodigal Spy will consist of one long Czechoslovakian travelogue as Nick makes contact with his father and is tasked with one mission; find the other Red agent in Washington, the one that gave away his father and killed the young woman to protect his secret.

Upon his return to Washington, Nick will have to dodge the FBI (including a pair of meetings with Edgar J. Hoover, the first of which is easily the book’s best sequence), second-guess the police, piece together the truth and ultimately unmask his father’s betrayer. Alas, as in Los Alamos, Kanon’s mystery is not much better than his pacing, and the identity of the betrayer can safely be deduced within the first hundred pages. (And given the length of the book, that’s quite early indeed.)

But is it fair to dismiss Kanon’s work as simply dull? Wouldn’t he be best compared to LeCarre, whose intricate novels of espionage also privileged atmosphere and characters over simple plotting and suspense? Well, maybe. Especially given how LeCarre’s novels were also dull and plodding. Older, more mature readers may enjoy this type of espionage thriller à l’européenne, but I myself couldn’t care less. It’s not because the Red Scare was important and is worth remembering that The Prodigal Spy is important and worth remembering. At least I’ll grant that the book has a few sex scenes.

Is it at least better than Los Alamos? I wouldn’t be able to tell given my distinct lack of interest in both. The Prodigal Spy tends to be a little bit stronger in memory, but that may very well be because I’ve just finished it: Ask me again in a year, and I’m liable to answer you with a blank stare. Apparently Kanon has written a new novel since then. I’m not sure I’ll remember to check it out.

Los Alamos, Joseph Kanon

Island, 1997, 517 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-22407-1

You might think that after a few hundred year’s worth of experimentation with the novelistic form, everything worth doing has been done at least once. And, in large part, this is true. There’s a saying somewhere about it being only four (or eight, or fifty-three) basic plots, and indeed it’s hard to find truly original works any more. Human emotions are finite, but fortunately, variations and combinations are infinite.

Often, the joys of a novel can be found in the unison of known elements from different fields. In Los Alamos, Joseph Kanon sets a murder mystery against the fascinating WW2 backdrop of the Manhattan Project, and mixes in a romance for good measure. It doesn’t mesh all that well, but at least it’s interesting to read.

As with so many novels set in an exotic environment, our passport to Los Alamos, with its collection of scientists, engineers, soldiers and associated family members, is a journalist named Michael Connolly. Hazily drafted from journalism and assigned to criminal investigation, Connolly is a sleuth outside the law, indeed almost outside the normal security apparatus. What he discovers in Los Alamos is our way of understanding that particular micro-society.

A tech writer such as Bruce Sterling would have tremendous fun showing us how Los Alamos’ unlikely mix of physics geniuses, security personnel and top-notch technicians might represent the archetype of late twentieth-century geek culture, but Kanon is no geek, and his view on Los Alamos is closer to noir than to techno. Connolly is quick to become entangled in the mess of extra-marital affairs, hush-hush homosexuality, invasive security and lovelorn wives that surround the pure-science Manhattan project.

There is, in the middle of all, a crime. A project member killed for what may be a myriad of reasons—from an illicit affair to money matters. Connolly will have to learn his job as he goes along, digging deep in Los Alamos to uncover secrets that might or might not be relevant, but that no one wants to see brought to light.

At the same time, he falls for one of the wives, who’s gradually revealed to be rather less than pure and, inevitably, entangled in the murder. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also an espionage thriller buried in Los Alamos, as Connolly realizes that foreign spies are smuggling secrets out of the place. Is this linked to the murder? Well, what do you think?

In theory, all the elements are there for a crackerjack book, mixing historical, crime, espionage and romantic fiction. How can it all go wrong?

With unnecessary gravitas, it seems. Kanon isn’t happy to have this rich palette of elements, and mixes a bit too much, too deliberately to ensure a harmonious result. As a result, various elements compete with each other, morassed in a ponderous style that seems to underscore the seriousness of it all. In attempting too much, Kanon forgets the need for genre fiction to entertain above all, and if Los Alamos is still a good read, it seems too heavy to truly rise above its base elements and truly achieve its potential. Compare and contrast this novel with the Bletchley Park sequences of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, for instance, for an edifying illustration of two very different approaches.

It’s also somewhat of a shame that the stereotypical romance cannot be camouflaged by the dour prose to become anything else but a distraction. Of course, he’s going to fall for her. Of course, she’ll prove to be essential to the resolution. It is, by far, the most ordinary part of the narrative, and also the weakest.

But for readers looking for something slightly different, this shouldn’t be enough to drive them away from the subtle pleasures of Los Alamos. It would take much more than these mere quibbles to screw up such a strong premise, and Kanon proves to be good enough. It won’t stop more technically aware readers to wonder aloud at how other writers might have approached the same elements, but don’t let that stop you from reading the book as it is.