Joseph Kanon served as editor in chief of the publishing houses Houghton Mifflin and E. P. Dutton in New York. He began his writing career in 1995 at age 49. Kanon’s first novel, Los Alamos (1997), became a bestseller and received the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1998. He has written eight superb espionage thrillers to date.
This post was updated on February 28, 2023.
Los Alamos (1997)
“It is the spring of 1945, and in a dusty, remote community, the world’s most brilliant minds have come together in secret. Their mission: to split an atom and end a war. But among those who have come to Robert Oppenheimer’s “enchanted campus” of foreign-born scientists, baffled guards, and restless wives is a simple man in search of a killer. Michael Connolly has been sent to the middle of nowhere to investigate the murder of a security officer on the Manhattan Project. But amid the glimmering cocktail parties and the staggering genius, Connolly will find more than he bargained for. He is plunged into a shadowy war with a killer—as the world is about to be changed forever.” (Amazon)
The Prodigal Spy (1998)—An espionage novelist to rival John Le Carre
Unlike Kanon’s previous work, which is set in the years 1945 to about 1950, The Prodigal Spy opens in 1950, slips directly to 1953, and then gets really interesting in 1969. The subject matter revolves around the anti-Communist witch-hunt in the United States in the 1950s. The story focuses on a Congressional committee that is a stand-in for HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is distinguished by having conducted its affairs in a markedly Un-American manner without having uncovered more than a handful of ineffectual Communists. In Kanon’s novel, an investigation by the Committee leads to the exposure of a genuine Communist spy in the State Department. Read the full review.
The Good German (2001)—The cost of total war was clear in Berlin after World War II
For Americans, who were largely spared the full impact of the war, it’s difficult to grasp the high price paid by others. In most of Europe and East Asia, hundreds of millions were most directly involved in the fighting for years on end. Historians’s accounts of their experience typically fall flat. For most of us, the reality of total war comes to light only through works of the imagination, principally film and books. And one book stands out in my mind for its vivid portrayal of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II: The Good German by Joseph Kanon. Read the full review.
World War II has ended, and Venice is unscathed — or so it would seem. However, when Nazi-hunter Adam Miller lands there to visit his mother after his release from the Army, he gradually finds that it reverberates with all the residual conflicts and tensions of the time. Sheltered at first among his mother’s wealthy expatriate friends, all of them oblivious to the grim reality around them, Adam soon becomes involved with a mysterious young Jewish woman who somehow survived the camps. Then he launches an investigation of his mother’s suitor, a Venetian doctor of an illustrious old family who seems too good to be true. His quickening relationship with the young woman, Claudia Grassini, and his hunt for the truth about Dr. Maglione’s past, merge in tragedy, baring the gaping sores left by the war and the deep roots of corruption in Italian society. Read the full review.
Stardust (2009)—German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel
Ben Collier, born Reuben Kohler, a German-American Jew raised in the film industry by his famous director father, leaves Germany in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War in Europe to visit his brother Danny, who lies in a coma in a Hollywood hospital. There, he finds himself embroiled in complex ways with Danny’s widow, Liesl, and the star-studded German emigre community in Southern California; and with a Right-Wing Congressman who stands in for Richard Nixon — not to mention assorted Communists, fellow-travelers, and the FBI in the era of J. Edgar Hoover. As the plot unfolds in all its complexity, the euphoria of victory in Europe and (later) in the Pacific gives way to the hysteria of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Read the full review.
Istanbul Passage (2012)—Romance intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul
Leon Bauer is an American businessman whose poor eyesight had kept him out of the war. In compensation — seeking his own war, really — Leon has persuaded a friend of his in the U.S. consulate to hire him for special espionage assignments, helping smuggle Jews out of Romania and on to Palestine. Now, in 1945, Leon receives a different sort of assignment, which involves helping to smuggle a high-value Romanian intelligence target through Istanbul and on to safety in the U.S. But everything quickly goes wrong. Read the full review.
Leaving Berlin (2014)—A brilliant novel of espionage in the early Cold War
Kanon’s protagonist is Alex Meier, a German-born American writer of considerable note who returns to East Germany in 1949 into the open arms of the growing literary community that circles around Bertolt Brecht, an earlier returnee. Unbeknownst to the regime, however, Meier has cut a deal with the CIA to be welcomed back to the US despite having defied the House Un-American Activities Committee — if he will spy on the East Germans. Read the full review.
Defectors (2017)—A superb new novel about defectors in Moscow
The book opens in Moscow in 1961, where an American publisher named Simon Weeks is just arriving to visit his notorious brother, Frank. Twelve years earlier Frank had defected to the Soviet Union and become “the man who betrayed a generation.” Now he is writing a memoir that Simon’s firm will publish. Unaccountably, the KGB has granted Frank permission to write and publish the book. Putting aside his doubts and anger, Simon settles down to work on the memoir with his brother under the watchful eye of Frank’s minder and bodyguard, a KGB colonel. But Frank cooperates only marginally, interrupting to insist that Simon take time out to walk in the park with him and visit Moscow landmarks. It soon becomes clear that Frank has an ulterior motive. Read the full review.
The Accomplice (2019)—Hunting Nazis in Argentina
On May 11, 1960, SS–Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Argentina. Eichmann had been one of the principal planners behind the Nazis’s “Final Solution.” Later, in Israel, he was found guilty of war crimes in a widely publicized trial and executed by hanging in 1962. Meanwhile, other notorious Nazi war criminals, including Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie, were the subjects of intensive searches elsewhere in South America. And thriller author Joseph Kanon writes about a similar effort, hunting for Nazis in Argentina, in a brilliant new novel, The Accomplice. Read the full review.
The Berlin Exchange (2022)—An ingenious tale about a spy swap in East Berlin
The two decades following World War II brought a rush of unwelcome revelations to Great Britain and the United States. One by one, spies working for the Soviet Union surfaced. The FBI and MI5 uncovered some, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the US and Klaus Fuchs in the UK. Others—most notably the Cambridge Five—successfully fled, defecting to the USSR. Many of the secrets these spies revealed to the Soviet Union involved the development of atomic weapons. In The Berlin Exchange, Joseph Kanon weaves a suspenseful tale centered on two such Soviet agents, both nuclear physicists, who turn up in East Germany in 1963. Read the full review.
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