Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Nuclear Option

Santa Fe, NM, if you've never been there, is a truly beautiful city full of adobe houses and free thinkers and great restaurants and a truly heterogeneous local culture. It also happens to be within blast radius of Los Alamos National Laboratory where the first nuclear weapons were developed and where atomic science continues to this day.

Julia Platt Leonard uses all of these aspects of Santa Fe in her new thriller and debut novel Cold Case. Thirteen year-old Austin "Oz" Keillor, hoping one day to become an accomplished chef, helps out at the family restaurant, Chez Isabelle, where his older brother serves as head chef. Early one Saturday morning, while his mother is out of the country, Oz comes in to clean the place and discovers a dead body, a murdered bodied, stashed in the walk in. What's worse, his brother's name is on a note in the victim's pocket. When the cops arrest Oz's brother, it's up to Oz and a couple of his friends to keep the restaurant going and find out who really committed the murder. As Oz uncovers clues it becomes more and more clear that all of this has to do with Oz's father, a Los Alamos scientist, now dead, but long suspected of selling the nation's nuclear secrets.

The book is a well-crafted thriller. The multiple mysteries unravel just steadily enough to keep the reader engaged. The story has all the plot twists you'd expect of a modern mystery and Oz's dogged determination is both admirable and infectious. The writing is fast paced and terse. There is, in fact, not a word wasted. And if the book has a flaw, that's it. Some readers, like me, enjoy a wasted word here or there. If I had to give Leonard advice for her second novel (and that is part of my job here) I'd tell her to loosen up a little bit. I think Oz could tell us a lot more about subjects like learning to cook and what Santa Fe really looks like when you're tearing around it on a bike.

The book is a little vague in using the word "nuclear" as well, never really distinguishing between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and, more basically, atomic science. Not that such distinctions are critical to the story, but they are critical to the decisions we make in our lives and it makes me a tad uncomfortable to see them used so interchangeably in a book for kids. We all need more level-headed clarity around these separate subjects if we're going to make the right choices for our future.

Ok, serious moment over.

Cold Case is more fun than that criticism would imply, so read it, get into, enjoy it. Just don't let it be the last book you read about Santa Fe, or gourmet cooking or, most especially, nuclear science.

For a bit on the critical nuclear power debate read this and this and even this (from Los Alamos).

Cross posted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp.

1 comment :

aquafortis said...

I just read this one recently & plan to post about it next week. I agree with your assessment--great fast-paced action, could have used a tiny bit more extra stuff, but overall, a fun read. I'm happy to see good YA/MG murder mysteries where the setup premise is reasonably realistic but still shocking enough to propel you into the book.

The restaurant setting was nicely done. I think you're right, though, about showing more of Santa Fe itself, since it has such a characteristic landscape. I didn't have trouble picturing it in my head, since I've been there, but that won't be true of everyone.