I find I have some seriously mixed emotions about this book. There's a lot of value going on here--it's beautifully written, with a reserved, understated, and occasionally penetrating style. It's an ambitious book--a book that manages to tackle racism, the insanities and hypocrisies of the military-industrial complex, the ethical issues surrounding the Manhattan Project (boy, there's one for the understatement-of-the-year award), exploitation, and the trademark Martin Cruz Smith wallow through male existential angst. And despite all this, it somehow managed to leave me cold for two hundred pages.
Staff Sergeant Joe Pena is a Pueblo Indian, a former heavyweight boxer, amateur jazz musician, and combat veteran, assigned as the driver for Dr. Robert Oppenheimer in November 1943, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He's got a sideline selling accidentally acquired goods on the black market, and he's no better than he should be.
Add one paranoid spy hunter who's convinced Oppy is working for the Russians (and that Joe is balling his wife) and who's determined to frame them both if he can't get the honest goods, an Indian plot to sabotage the Army guys who are shooting their sheep, a Jewish refugee mathematician with serious ethical reservations about her work, a bushel basket of more-or-less mad physicists, some radioactive cattle, and a boxing promoter who wants Joe to fight one last time, a chance at a better life, and you would think you'd have the elements of a fairly hard-driving plot.
Instead, the first two thirds of the book are kind of a meandering mess. There's a lot of stuff here, and a lot of gorgeous writing, and a fine ear for dialogue and character, some obviously meticulous research, setting and worldbuilding that would do an SF writer proud--but it's not got a through-line. It lacks, I think, transitions. Things aren't tied together; the pattern is just falling sand.
Two thirds of the way through the book, though, things click together. Admittedly, it's hard to write a dull ending on a book when your final destination is the Trinity test. But somewhere around page two hundred that sticking transmission kicks in, and the book starts rolling downhill like an avalanche.
Martin Cruz Smith has a lot of trust in his reader; you can't skim his books. He salts a fact in once; you need it to understand the ending fifty pages later.
And it's a lady and the tiger ending. I admire his guts.
...and on that note, off to Comicon. See you in a week, unless I see you at the Con.