Scandal in the Secret City
The high-security, covert area known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee – over 50,000 acres of land set aside by the U.S. government for the development of a nuclear bomb – has great potential as the setting for a historical mystery. Fanning’s intricate and smart new novel makes excellent use of the material.
Libby Clark, a recent UPenn grad with a master’s in analytical chemistry, is thrilled to get a job offer from Eastman Kodak since there aren’t many employers in 1942 who’d hire a female scientist. The utter secrecy under which she’s ordered to carry out her tasks turns sinister, though, when her former roommate’s sister is murdered. Irene Nance was an easygoing young woman with an active love life. When Irene’s body is mysteriously moved (something the authorities deny doing), Libby suspects a cover-up but doesn’t know the reasons why. Having promised Irene’s family to seek justice for her, Libby gets stonewalled at every turn and takes a huge risk by pursuing an investigation. That’s on top of dealing with sexist remarks from coworkers with less technical knowledge than she has.
The timeline feels a little awkward in the beginning with its multiple-flashback structure, but this is a minor issue. The geographical layout and high-pressure atmosphere of Oak Ridge are re-created in extensive detail, as is the curious plight of its scientists, who are simultaneously proud of their work for the war effort and concerned about what they believe is their project’s end result. Libby herself is a brave and admirable career woman, and seeing her in action, carefully hunting the truth while refusing to play down her expertise, makes for a very satisfying story. There are enough clues for readers to guess the killer well before Libby does, but even so, her appearance in future volumes in the series is eagerly awaited.