Kanon, Joseph 1946-

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Kanon, Joseph 1946-
(Joseph A. Kanon)


Born 1946; married Robin Straus (a literary agent); children: two sons. Education: Attended Harvard University, c. 1968; attended Cambridge University, c. 1970.


Home—New York, NY.


Writer and publishing executive. Atlantic Monthly, reader; president and CEO, E.P. Dutton; executive vice president, Trade & Reference Publishing, Houghton Mifflin.


Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel, Mystery Writers of America, 1998, for Los Alamos; Hammett Award for literary excellence, International Association of Crime Writers, 2005, for Alibi.



Los Alamos, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1997.

The Prodigal Spy, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1998.

The Good German, Holt (New York, NY), 2001.

Alibi, Holt (New York, NY), 2005.

Los Alamos was translated into eighteen languages.


The Good German was adapted for film by Stephen Soderbergh, starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, 2006. Los Alamos and Alibi have been optioned for film; works have been made into audio books, including Los Alamos, Books on Tape, 1997; The Good German Simon & Schuster Audio, 2001; and Alibi, Henry Holt, 2005.


Publishing executive Joseph Kanon broadened his career with the publication of his first novel, Los Alamos, in 1997. The mystery takes place in the middle of the New Mexico desert during World War II. The U.S. government is conducting atomic weapons research under the code name the Manhattan Project. When a security guard at the site is found murdered, ostensibly from a homosexual encounter gone wrong, Michael Connolly, an Army Intelligence officer, is sent to investigate any possible security breach. He finds that the man's death was staged to cover up more ominous truths. When he interviews a man who has been arrested for (and has confessed to) the murder, he finds the man unfamiliar with details of the murder. Real-life Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer plays a major part in the novel, and other scientists, such as Edward Teller and Richard Feynmann, have small parts. Connolly finds himself attracted to the wife of one scientist, and the romance figures as prominently in the plot as does the mystery.

A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found Kanon's use of real-life characters in Los Alamos believable, both as themselves and as actors in the drama. The reviewer judged Kanon's villains to be "profoundly human and horribly plausible" and that the political issues involved in the plot were well outlined. The book is full of realistic details, the reviewer remarked, and it boasted "a tingling climax … and an ending full of the most poignant irony for anyone who remembers what happened later to Oppenheimer." Tom Nolan of the Wall Street Journal praised Kanon's description of "the rhythms and routines peculiar to makeshift Los Alamos— its brilliant emigres, its hothouse high jinks."

The book also earned praise from Christopher Lehmann- Haupt of the New York Times. Although he felt the novel started slowly, Lehmann-Haupt commented that the book is a "historical drama of excitement and high moral seriousness," and that overall, Kanon succeeded "impressively" in his first published work. "Clearly immers[ ing] himself in his subject's history" worked to the book's advantage, Lehmann-Haupt noted, even if it added some length. Kanon "devotes a moving scene to the news of Roosevelt's death. He explores in sensitive detail the morality of the building of the bomb," Lehmann-Haupt wrote, adding: "And the novel vividly evokes the project's landscape." Discussing Kanon's description of the Trinity bomb blast, history's first atomic explosion, Lehmann-Haupt commented that "this is how it must have been for those who witnessed the event." As for the resolution of the mystery, "its payoff is the best kind of surprise," Lehmann-Haupt wrote, "one that makes you slap your forehead and exclaim, ‘But of course!’"

In Kanon's second novel, The Prodigal Spy, Nick Warren is the son of a 1950s-era State Department official who is also a Soviet spy. Nick's father defects to the Soviet Union to sidestep an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee when Nick is just ten years old. After serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, Nick enrolls in the London School of Economics, where he is researching the House Un-American Activities Committee in an effort to better understand his father's activities before his defection. He meets an engaging young woman, Molly, who convinces him to travel to Prague to reunite with his father. After the meeting has taken place, Nick discovers that his father is dying and wishes to return to the United States. He tells his son what he knows about the Communist spy network still operating in Washington, but is unable to escape Czechoslovakia before his death. Nick and Molly take on the mission to ferret out the Soviet spies themselves, with little to go on other than the addresses of the spies dating from twenty years earlier.

The premise for The Prodigal Spy is loosely based on the case of Alger Hiss, according to Booklist reviewer David Pitt, but the subsequent conspiracy and murder "is purely imaginary, although entirely plausible." Pitt commented that "the novel is a shrewd and often moving exploration not only of the anti-Communist mania of the 1950s, but also of its aftermath." A contributor to Publishers Weekly noted that some plot elements seem forced, but that "Kanon is very adept at rendering the feeling and atmosphere of another time, and his early chapters are powerful evocations of that strange period in American life."

Kanon returns to the World War II era in The Good German, in which news correspondent Jake Geismar returns to Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference. His agenda is personal; he wants to find Lena, the woman he was forced to leave behind at the outset of the war. Instead, he finds a Germany that is almost unrecognizably altered, and quickly becomes embroiled in postwar intrigue when he discovers the body of an American G.I. and finds that the U.S. delegate wants to squelch the story. Smelling a good story, Jake's investigation leads him straight to Lena and a plot involving her rocket-scientist husband, whose whereabouts is unknown. The romance between Jake and Lena is in stark contrast to the desolation of their surroundings and the cruelty she has suffered at the hands of the Russians. Critics once again applauded Kanon's ability to weave a fictional tale around a specific historical event. "Kanon hits every note just right," wrote Bill Ott in Booklist, "from the wide-angle descriptions of Berlin's pockmarked moonscape to the tellingly detailed portraits of the city's shellshocked survivors." A Publishers Weekly contributor questioned some of Kanon's plot developments, but wrote that "Kanon is at his strongest when giving voice to the hard choices and moral dilemmas of the times."

While recognizing Kanon's plot limitations and other minor style flaws, Neil Gordon of the New York Times Book Review called The Good German "a quantum leap toward real mastery of the genre." Gordon praised the sense of place and time above all else in the book, stating that "the novel's action moves through a ravaged Berlin so exactly depicted that one feels Kanon must have traveled in time to witness this landscape himself." As for the disintegration of social order, Gordon observed that "no one is innocent in Kanon's Berlin: the Americans are corrupted by denazification, as are the Russians, whose war heroes are guilty of terrible cruelty. Bystanders are accused of witnessing deportations; military courts try Jews who turned on other Jews. Above all, however, Geismar … keeps running up against the subtle, ever-present anti-Semitism … of the Americans."

In his next novel, Alibi, Kanon returns to the post-war setting in Europe and tells the story of Adam Miller, who has just finished his assignment as a war crimes investigator in Germany. After capturing Nazis on the run, he joins his mother, Grace Miller, in Venice, where both son and mother both fall in love. When Adam's fiancé, Claudia, eventually meets Grace's beau, Gianni, she accuses him of being a German sympathizer. A murder soon follows, and Adam learns that Grace also had some questionable dealings with the Germans. The complex plot involves shifting alliances and characters who may or may not be all that they appear when it comes to innocence and guilt.

"What Kanon's novel does is lay out, in all its ambiguity, a complex moral equation, leaving it to the reader to figure out what would be the right thing to do under the circumstances," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Frank Wilson in a review of Alibi. Writing in Entertainment Weekly, Jennifer Reese noted that "the emotional and moral stakes keep shifting … unpredictably." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the author "keeps his complex plot … on track." Bill Ott commented in Booklist that "the novel holds us completely, with its vision of a sadly inadequate hero striking deep at our worst fears about ourselves."



Book, May-June, 2002, Rochelle O'Gorman, review of The Good German.

Booklist, March 15, 1997, Bill Ott, review of Los Alamos, p. 1204; November 1, 1998, David Pitt, review of The Prodigal Spy, p. 451; May 1, 2000, Bill Ott and Brad Hooper, review of Los Alamos, p. 1595; July, 2001, Bill Ott, review of The Good German, p. 1950; March 1, 2005, Bill Ott, review of Alibi, p. 1102.

Bookseller, September 9, 2005, Gordon Keer, review of Alibi, p. 22.

Desert Morning News (Salt Lake City, UT), May 15, 2005, Dennis Lythgoe, review of Alibi.

Entertainment Weekly, May 23, 1997, Gene Lyons, review of Los Alamos, p. 61; April 15, 2005, Jennifer Reese, review of Alibi, p. 86.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 31, 2001, Jay Goldin, review of The Good German.

Houston Chronicle, April 29, 2005, John Freeman, review of Alibi.

Library Journal, March 15, 1997, Mark Annichiarico, review of Los Alamos, p. 90; January, 1999, A.J. Anderson, review of The Prodigal Spy, p. 152; September 1, 2001, David Dodd, review of The Good German, p. 233; March 15, 2005, Ronnie H. Terpening, review of Alibi, p. 72.

Newsweek, May 19, 1997, Malcom Jones, Jr., review of Los Alamos, p. 85.

New York Times, May 15, 1997, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Los Alamos, p. B7.

New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1999, Morton Kondracke, "Fall Guys," p. 23; October 14, 2001, Neil Gordon, review of The Good German, p. 8; April 10, 2005, Joseph Finder, review of Alibi, p. 24.

People, June 16, 1997, J.D. Reed, review of Los Alamos, p. 32.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 22, 2005, Frank Wilson, review of Alibi.

Publishers Weekly, February 10, 1997, review of Los Alamos, p. 64; April 21, 1997, Paul Nathan, "Kanon's bomb," discusses film rights for Los Alamos, p. 23; November 9, 1998, review of The Prodigal Spy, p. 55; July 16, 2001, review of The Good German, p. 164; March 14, 2005, review of Alibi, p. 46.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 1, 2005, David Lazarus, review of Alibi.

Times (London, England), August 06, 2005, Peter Millar, review of Alibi.

Wall Street Journal, June 9, 1997, Tom Nolan, review of Los Alamos, p. A17.

Washington Post, April 11, 2005, Patrick Anderson, review of Alibi, p. C02.

Writer, February, 2006, "Joseph Kanon," interview with author, p. 66.


Beatrice,http://www.beatrice.com/ (May 9, 2006), Ron Hogan, "Joseph Kanon," interview with author.

Brothers Judd,http://www.brothersjudd.com/ (May 9, 2006), reviews of Los Alamos and The Good German.

Joseph Kanon Home Page,http://www.josephkanon.com/ (May 9, 2006).

Mostly Fiction,http://mostlyfiction.com/ (June 12, 2005) Mary Whipple, review of Alibi.

Who Dunnit,http:// www.who-dunnit.com/ (May 9, 2006), Alan Paul Curtis, review of Alibi; brief bio of author.

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