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Joseph Kanon: The Complex Characters of History and Place

by Jane Hammons

When Joseph Kanon published Los Alamos, his first novel, in 1997 at age 51, I was excited for two reasons. At 44, I found the story of his career switch—from publisher to writer—inspiring. The second reason was the setting. On a trip to northern New Mexico, Kanon went to “The Hill,” the site of The Manhattan Project, where he began to imagine what it might have been like to live in a place that existed only as P. O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and was populated by the best and brightest minds of the mid-20th century.


The Stallian Gate Road, New Mexico

Like Kanon I arrived at my fascination with Robert Oppenheimer because of an atomic bomb site. I grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, and spent years traveling along U.S. 70, passing the white gypsum sand dunes that drifted across the highway and stretched for miles into the desert. As a child, I thought the atomic bomb test had blasted that desert white. While I am now aware that Oppenheimer’s Trinity base camp was located in the Sierra Oscura, not White Sands, atomic nightmares still drift across the plains of my sleep.

Joseph Kanon was born in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, where his father worked in the mines. On the website Famous Nanticokians, Kanon describes a childhood with his parents and two brothers as “perfectly happy.” He was not a boy who longed to leave his small town for success in the big city, but he did enjoy taking “a Martz bus” to New York City, the place he thought of as “the most exciting city in the world.”In an interview with journalist Jesse Kornbluth, a friend since undergraduate days at Harvard, Kanon discusses his career, one that began as a reader for Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. After receiving a master’s degree in English Literature from Trinity College, Cambridge, he became an editor at E. P. Dutton and eventually CEO. A position as Executive Vice President of Trade and Reference at Houghton Mifflin followed. Had it not been for that trip to New Mexico, Kanon would have been happy to continue his career in publishing. He wasn’t someone who had been writing on the side, and, in fact, when he returned from New Mexico, intrigued by Oppenheimer and the potential for a murder mystery set in the Project’s secret location, he was thinking like a publisher. Which author could write it? When no one came to mind, he decided to write the novel himself. But he did so privately, concerned about the embarrassment of being a publisher who couldn’t write.

His concern proved unfounded when Los Alamos, was published to excellent reviews and recognized by the Mystery Writers of America with the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel.

Since the success of Los Alamos, Kanon has published five novels. The Prodigal Spy, adds McCarthy era intrigue to Kanon’s interest in the Post WWII period and takes us to Europe (specifically Prague), the setting for most of Kanon’s writing. Kanon’s third novel The Good German (2001) was made into a film directed by Steven Soderbergh (2005), starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. Referencing movies like Casablanca and The Third Man, Soderbergh used film technology from the ‘40s—period camera lenses and overhead boom microphones—to create a smoky black and white cinematic experience that visually renders Kanon’s apocalyptic vision of post-WWII Berlin (but Soderberg’s altered plot ultimately doesn’t do justice to the novel). Alibi (2005)—Kanon’s fourth novel—is set in Venice, and for the first time Kanon locates us in a city largely spared physical damage from the war and not known for spy activity. Awarded The Hammett Prize by the International Association of Crime Writers, Alibi elegantly showcases the value of Kanon’s English degree: themes from Shakespeare, Henry Miller and Thomas Mann resonate as the American protagonist Adam, falls in love with Claudia, a survivor of the concentration camp at Fossoli, and a woman who is extremely uncomfortable in the socialite world of Adam’s mother.


History and film are twinned interests of Kanon’s. Ben Collier, protagonist of Stardust (2009), a member of the Signal Corps just returned from the war, has collected film shot at Dachau and is charged with finding a studio to produce a documentary out of it. The novel even opens like a movie from the 40s or 50s with a scene on a train where Ben meets Hollywood mogul Sol Lasner, who is accompanied by Paulette Goddard. Kanon also made his own short documentary about the old Hollywood studio system that includes sites from Stardust. And finally, the beautiful book trailer for his most recent book Istanbul Passage (2012) leads us to Galata Bridge, Sirkeci Station, the former American Consulate, and the site of the Park Hotel—the “watering hole” of the German Consulate, which Kanon describes as “the real life Rick’s Café filled with Nazis, Russians and Turkish secret police.”

In the trailer, Kanon tells us that the question for his protagonist, American businessman and spy Leon Bauer, is, “What do you do when there is no right thing to do?” This question—this interest in moral ambiguity—underpins all of Kanon’s novels.

Kanon has often said that place suggests characters and stories to him, and this can be seen in the way that his plots are inextricably linked to place. He has a wonderful gift for detail that, along with his extensive research, situates us quickly in the world of his story.

TrinityHistMarkerWhen Michael Connolly is sent from Washington, D. C. to Los Alamos to investigate the murder of a security officer from “The Hill,” he arrives “at Lamy, a dusty town in the high desert that seemed to have been blown in by the wind and got stuck at the tracks” (9). And while there is a touch of colonialism in his description of the plaza at Santa Fe, anyone who knows the pre-Starbucks plaza appreciates the mention of landmarks as true to the feel of the plaza as the Palace of the Governors and La Fonda are.

Santa Fe, however, was pretty. The adobes […] seemed to draw in the sun, holding its light and color like dull penumbras of a flame. The narrow streets leading to the plaza were filled with American stores—a Woolworth’s, a Rexall Drugs that had been dropped into a foreign city. The people too, dressed in cowboy hats and jeans, looked like visitors. Only the Mexican women, wrapped in shawls, and the Indians, nodding over their piles of tourist blankets, were really at home. The plaza itself was quiet, a piece of Spain drowsing in an endless siesta(11).

The novels set in Berlin, Los Angeles, Prague and Venice feature places familiar to me, either because I’ve been there or because I’ve learned about them from history, film and literature. But in the case of Istanbul, which is less familiar, I was mesmerized by Kanon’s description and language. The novel begins:

The first attempt had to be called off. It had taken days to arrange the boat and the safe house and then, just a few hours before the pickup, the wind started, a poyraz, howling down from the northeast, scooping up water as it swept across the Black Sea. The Bosphorous waves, usually no higher than boat wakes by the time they reached the shuttered yalis along the shore, now churned and slashed against the landing docks. From the quay Leon could barely make out the Asian side, strings of faint lights hidden behind a scrim of driving rain (3).

The “attempt” refers to a ship that is to illegally transport European Jewish refugees— survivors of the Holocaust—to Palestine. Anna, Leon’s wife, a German Jew, once arranged such passage, but now she exists only in a trauma-induced catatonic state, having witnessed hundreds of bodies wash ashore after an overloaded ship sinks in the harbor. Like Leon, Anna loves Istanbul, “something almost magical after Germany, somewhere you could breathe.” Leon often reflects on their first days together,

stepping out of Sirkeci station into a swarm of motorbikes, the smell of frying fish, trays piled with simits balanced on vendors’ heads, oars crowding the Eminönü piers, everything noisy and sunlit. In the taxi crossing Galata Bridge he had turned back to look at Sinan’s graceful minarets pricking the sky, and at that moment a flock of birds rose up, swooping around the dome of the Yeni Mosque, then diving back to the water, rippling with light, and Leon thought it was the most wonderful place he had ever been (22).

Leon is known for his ability to navigate the city, a fact that is intricately woven into the plot when he has to hide the Romanian, Jianu, a member of The Iron Guard who played a role in the slaughter of Jews from Bucharest at Straulesti.

If you have ever written sex scenes, you know they aren’t easy. In her very useful book The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction WritersElizabeth Benedict provides four guiding principles. The second principle is one Kanon adheres to: “A good sex scene always connects to the larger concerns of the work” (6). In Kanon’s novels sex is a way of reuniting the body with a soul damaged by the horrors of war. In some cases people have married as a way to provide a haven from persecution, and the husbands and wives in these marriages fall in love with other people. Sex is memory: of love, of happiness, of well-being.

In The Good German, the protagonist Jake returns to Berlin during the American occupation. Flying into Berlin,

Jake looked down at the ground  […] Why hadn’t anyone told him? He had seen bombed cities before […] but nothing on this scale […] Shells of houses, empty as ransacked tombs, miles and miles of them, whole pulverized stretches where there were not even walls […] landmarks had disappeared under shifting dunes of rubble […] A beige cloud hung over everything—not smoke, a thick haze of soot and plaster dust, as if the houses could not quite bring themselves to leave. But Berlin was gone (9).

When he begins to look for Lena, a woman he had an affair with before the U. S. entered the war, he follows a prostitute, who is wearing a blue dress he recognizes as Lena’s, to her apartment. When he knocks on the door, it is opened by “a gaunt woman with stringy hair, sickbed pale, another ruin” (134). Like Berlin Lena is wasted, a shell, almost gone.

Jake provides Lena food and medical care, and once she begins to recover, they again become intimate:

He started to undo his belt buckle, but she reached up and did it for him, the shirt falling away, then pulled the zipper and put hands on his hips […] She touched his penis, moving her hand over it slowly, making it familiar […] Slowly, a little bit at a time. He began stroking her softly, every piece of skin familiar, the curve of her back, the hollow just before her hip, the underside of her breast […]  Everything familiar. Except the pleasure, the feeling itself, always new, different every time, like the sky, too immediate to hold in memory (168).

As he does with setting, Kanon makes sex an integral part of character and plot development.

I am drawn to spy fiction because it is inherently political and historical. And while it is the story—the fiction—that I read for, Kanon’s novels never fail to inspire me to look at old maps and to read related nonfiction. He is a tireless researcher, spending many hours of his writing days in the New York Public Library. It is, perhaps, this penchant for research that helps Kanon tell stories which resist easy responses to moral dilemmas: the more immersed we are in history, the more we uncover the complexities and contradictions of our times.

Bloom Post End

Jane Hammons teaches writing at UC Berkeley where she is the recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award. She has a story in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W. W. Norton) and an essay in The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change (Seal Press). She is the recipient of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Her writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals: Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, Verbicide Magazine and Word Riot.

Homepage image via flickr/abnat

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