Manhattan on the Mesa

Moral ambiguity is the spice to mysteries, and it grows sharpest at ground zero on a windswept mesa in New Mexico in Joseph Kanon’s debut novel “Los Alamos.”

There, during World War II, working in near-complete secrecy on a government-built city, scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer developed the atomic bomb. But the murder of a security officer — himself a German refugee like many of the scientists — with hints of a homosexual encounter involved poses a risk to the project. The project chief calls in Army Intelligence, in the form of Michael Connolly, to investigate, and possibly to suppress what he finds.

The case is tricky in more ways than one. Connolly must deal with the local police, as well as suspicions that the murder may be homosexually related, at a time where homophobia was public policy instead of a private embarrassment.

But Kanon shines in recreating the atmosphere of this city in the clouds, where scientists work feverishly to unveil the secrets of atomic fission by day, and listen to Beethoven quartets by night; where its residents can be reached by only a box number, their driver’s licenses identify them by numbers, but as Connolly observed, “in the most secret place in the world, there was maid service.” Kanon dives into issues of moral responsibility often, of the need for secrecy and deceit, but also for the need for love and trust among people seemingly incapable of both. Kanon obligingly throws in the English wife of an emigre scientist, tough and cynical in jodhpurs and drink, aching for the human touch.

“Los Alamos” is really what much-hyped “The Big Picture” should have been, a look at some truly heady moral issues wrapped in the guilty pleasures of a murder mystery. Kanon trots with the conventions of the genre instead of runs with it. He takes few risks and faithfully following the contours of the genre. But “Los Alamos” offers greater pleasures in its recounting of everyday life in a city that doesn’t exist, among people without identity. It’s a memorable depiction of two worlds, the outside pre-nuclear-power civilization and the inside community of scientists, both blown away forever by the radioactive dust from the Trinity bomb site.