30 December 2016

Library Limelights 122

Joseph Kanon. Los Alamos. USA: Island Books/Dell Publishing, 1997.
It's a work of genius, integrating a murder mystery with the last days of the Manhattan Project in New Mexico. Security at the site was rigidly enforced for the several thousand scientists, support workers, army personnel, and occasional civilians in order to protect America's biggest secret. Only a handful know the atomic bomb is about to be born. Investigative journalist Michael Connolly is brought to the "Hill" to solve the crime and above all, keep it quiet. He doesn't trust his boss, the real-life General Groves; internal surveillance on everyone is routine. An unexpected love affair almost derails Connolly as he sees the surrounding desert through rapturous eyes.

Kanon grips the reader right from the get-go. It may be a novel but the background research is painstakingly authentic. He does not ignore the moral ambiguity about "tickling the dragon," using a fictional scientist as a touchstone. But historical figure Robert Oppenheimer is central to the project and its "gadget" (as he calls it) and indeed to the story, held in awe by his peers for his vast expertise as well as his remarkable intuitive ability. Oppenheimer's chosen band of scientific colleagues includes German and East European refugees, complicating Connolly's hunt for murder suspects. The problem is far from over after reconstructing the murder scene. A truly powerful work that no crime-writing fan should miss.

He felt like someone brought home to dinner on approval and wondered if Emma regretted bringing him, now that it was his approval she seemed to care about. (95)
The whole mesa seemed on edge, like some extension of Oppenheimer's nervous system. (446)

"You mean you write propaganda?" Mills said, intrigued. "I've never met anyone who did that."
Connolly smiled. "No. Not propaganda. That's big lies, fake stories―the stuff Goebbels used to do. We don't make anything up. You couldn't, these days. We just look at it right, make people feel better about things. So they don't get discouraged. We don't have heavy casualties, we meet fierce resistance. A German advance is a last-ditch counterattack. No body parts, dismemberment, guts hanging out, just clean bullets. French villages are glad to see us―I think they must be, too. Our boys do not get the syph―or give it, for that matter. We don't mean to bomb anybody by accident, so we never do. The army isn't up to anything in New Mexico. There is no Manhattan Project."
Mills stared at him, surprised by the casual cynicism of the speech.
"Just a few rewrites," Connolly said. "For our own good." (31-2)

The Anasazi:
She guided him through the site, pointing out the masonry patterns, the low chamber entrances, the arrangement of the rooms, so that what had been an inexplicable maze of stones now became real, filled with imagined life. People had lived here, moving from ceremonial kiva to irrigated field to storage room. The valley floor had hummed with noise. As they walked from room to room, the place began to make sense, there was an order to things, and he wondered suddenly if years from now people would walk like this on the Hill, picking their way through its buildings and rituals and puzzles until they arranged themselves in the simple pattern of a town. Maybe it would keep its mysteries too, and maybe they would seem just as inconsequential. (230)

He thought of Eisler in his lab, those desperate seconds lowering the cube before it went critical. The trick was to stop in time, before the dragon turned. But what if it took on a life of its own? What if simply starting the process demanded its only conclusion? He looked around the Hill―clothes near the McKee units flapping on lines in the bright, dry air; a repairman high up on one of the overhead transformers; soldiers in jeeps―and it seemed to him utterly ordinary. Everyone was just getting on with the day, making a bomb. (385)

Vendela Vida. The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. USA: HarperCollins, 2015.
Woman arrives in Casablanca, Morocco, and immediately all her ID and cash are stolen. Crazypants woman borrows new identity and allows herself to flow with it, masking her deep internal wounds. Paranoid and suspicious of everyone she meets, she fumbles with hotel staff, policemen, embassy clerks, and film crews. Yes, film crews, because she lucks into a local movie-making set and meets famous American actress. One thing leads to another in a deadpan sort of way, always underscored by her unspoken, subversive reactions.

Told as second-person narrative, the style is irresistible, hysterically funny at times. Yet this is an edgy portrait, gradually disclosing a tormented psyche. The missing tourist scene in the Meknes souk is hilarious despite leading to the major revelation. Slim as the book is, it's not a mystery, not a thriller, but a masterpiece of its own.

A psychiatrist friend of yours once told you that a telltale sign of a mentally unstable person is that she's never dressed appropriately for the weather. (59)
This is how it is in these countries―the glasses are so small and you are always thirsty. (88)

After the theft:
"We already have policemen on the street and in the markets looking for the man."
Of course they're scouring the markets. That's the first place the thief would go. To the markets to sell the computer, the phone, the camera.
"How many policemen?" you ask.
"Seventeen," he says.
Seventeen policemen. You try not to show how impressed you are. But seventeen policemen! The police chief is a serious man. But why not eighteen policemen? Where's the eighteenth policeman? (24)

Creeping paranoia:
The unlikely duo sit down on the chaise longue next to yours. "Sorry to interrupt your swim," says the pale practical woman, not seeming at all sorry.
"Yes, our apologies," says the tattooed man, seeming a little more apologetic. His tattoos bear words in Arabic and one, DESTINY, in English. He speaks with a slight British accent. Your guess is he studied in London as an exchange student. Now it all makes sense. They work for Interpol. You eye the elevator door, assessing whether if you run, you can escape. But the tattooed man looks athletic. You have no chance.
"We saw you downstairs," the pale practical woman says. "Did you see us?"
What is the right answer? The pale practical woman is American. Maybe she works for the embassy. ...
"No," you lie. "Maybe." (79)

Finding confidence:
There's a reason why you finally arrived at diving as your competitive sport. With diving your face was virtually unseen. It was all about the shape your body made in the distance as you dropped from a high board and disappeared deep into the water. By the time you came up for air, the judges had determined their score. It had nothing to do with your face. (87)

Pass or fail?
The bodyguard stands up.
"Did I fail the interview?" you ask.
"Not at all," he says. "I know people. I can tell you're a forthright person, Reeves." You don't know if you want to laugh or cry at this statement, but given that this appears to be the end of the interview, you simply nod.
"Well," says the practical secretary, never one to admire silence for long, "I have a room key." (97)

Karin Fossum. The Caller. (2009) UK: Harvill Secker, 2011.

Fossum's familiar Inspector Konrad Sejer and his partner Skarre ponder a series of bizarre pranks. None of them are life-threatening but all have devastating effects on the victims and their kin ― ideal fodder for the author's trademark psychological suspense. Personal security has been violated; an entire town becomes frightened. It seems disappointing, at first, that we know who the culprit is (like, where else can this go?) but of course the real questions are ― how far will he escalate, when does a prank turn into something evil, does a copycat come into play? Then murder happens.

The victims are ordinary people, even a little boring at times in their circumscribed lives, but nevertheless it's impossible not to make the Everyman connection. Having profiled the perpetrator, Sejer feels some compassion is warranted when he meets the abused Johnny. However Sejer's instincts are not always on target; in fact, the policeman is experiencing some alarming medical symptoms. I venture to say he survives, as there have been two more books since in the series. Classic Fossum in her sparse but elegant prose.

"When you're dependent on others you grow pious as a lamb." (45)
"When the rats go to sleep," it said on the box, "they will never wake up again." (47)
Someone who has a father has a place to go when things fall apart. (179)

Johnny's turmoil:
I can deal with almost anything, he thought. Year after year I've held my tongue. But the day is coming when I will get up and take my gruesome revenge. She doesn't know it, but that day is very close. I just need the right moment. To hell with the consequences ― life is a drag, and so is death. When I get my revenge people can do what they want and think what they want, I won't care. That's why I'm better than them. (127)

Karsten's despair:
The time that had lapsed since the incident with Margrete had left its mark on him in many ways. Cracks had appeared in the foundation, small fractures which continued to expand, and which meant his life was about to collapse. He had a more fiery temperament, which was manifested in his gait and other gestures ― something testy and jagged ― and he slammed doors more forcefully. Sometimes, when he was completely honest with himself ― for example in the evening, after a few beers ― he knew he wasn't in love with Lily any more. No, it was worse than that: he had begun to dislike her. He couldn't handle her femininity, her fear and vulnerability. Whenever he had these thoughts, despair filled him instantly, because maybe he was the one who had failed them.
He hadn't been able to protect them.
A stranger had come from outside and blasted their relationship to smithereens. (190)

Second thoughts?
"You trust this feeling? He tricked everyone for a long time. Why should you trust him now?"
Sejer shrugged. "Intuition is important. And I believe that mine is especially well-developed. After many years on the police force, after meeting so many people from all walks of life, I believe people use their gut feelings more than they realise. That's what carries us through life."
"But the police have to assess facts and clues and things like that?"
"Of course. And we haven't found anything at the crime scene which would indicate sabotage. So it's word against word."
Matteus looked hard at his grandfather.
"I think he's trying to pull one over on you." (289)

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