There are few screeching tires and racing engines in the plot of James W. Kunetka's "Shadow Man," a book that takes the reader along the back roads and trails of New Mexico in the search for clues to the murder of shy, reclusive Isaac Berriman.
The action in this fine thriller blends the strikingly disparate elements--the nuclear weapons facilities of the Los Alamos area and the region's Indian heritage--of a state that has the cutthroat trout as its official fish. High tech and sophisticated computer hacking are mingled with old religious practices and taboos.
A cut throat--that of Berriman, a brilliant mathematician engaged in laser research--is what launches the action in Kunetka's tale of Soviet attempts to steal secrets of the U.S. Star Wars program. The death is rigged to appear as a ritual murder by Indians living in the area. Indian religious artifacts are deliberately placed beside the body. A stylized snake drawn with the victim's own blood is found on his forehead.
The identity of the "Shadow Man"--the who in whodunit--is revealed early on, and the remaining mystery involves the culprits' efforts to frame David Parker, Berriman's boss, for the murder and what happens to the villains.
Parker is one of the two characters who dominate the action. He heads the facility engaged in research on missile-destroying lasers. He is a dedicated scientist, dissatisfied with the implications of his work. He would rather have a comfortable teaching post at a California university.
The other is a middle-age Indian, Tomas Reyes, a former drifter who has returned to his tribe and takes the job as the reservation policeman. His knowledge of the region and its Indian lore gives him an advantage over the "Anglo" FBI and other agents assigned to the killing. There is also Parker's wife, Elisha, an avid archeologist, and the couple's precocious 11-year-old son, Tevis, whose curiosity over the murder leads him to conceal important evidence.
The villains are an abrasive, motorcycle-riding scientist and the woman who dominates him, a tough-minded, red-haired alumna of the radical movement who sells Indian antiquities and Los Alamos secrets. An assortment of scientists, government bureaucrats, dealers in Indian artifacts and a very nasty young Indian round out the cast.
Kunetka seems more interested in the region's Indian traditions than he is in the deadly scientific marvels being developed in the laboratories. He delves, with considerable detail, into the lore of the region's tribes and offers, in effect, a short course on the significance of rituals and artifacts that sustain their religious beliefs. He acquaints the reader with such terms as paho, kachina and kiva .
The author spends little time in his fictional laboratories other than to rummage through their computer systems. He offers some mild expressions of disapproval of Star Wars but has mercifully resisted any temptation to sermonize on the controversial program; that would only have cluttered the narrative.
The book is well written. It avoids the cliches and dazzling language that mar some thrillers. The characters are generally well drawn and believable, though Kunetka could have done more in developing the personalities of the killers. The book maintains a nice balance between the rough-and-tumble variety of the genre and the wordy "intellectual" thrillers whose plots hang on a slip of the tongue or a minor misstep.
"Shadow Man" is a good read.