Get Your Kicks with an Atomic Fix
“I tried to concentrate on where I was going and the reason for the trip, but everything around me conspired to catapult me into the dramatic event that placed me on this particular train in this unique moment in time. The clack of the wheels, the hum of the rails, the ebb and flow of the sound of rushing air as the train passed trees, buildings and fields rang in my ears, growing louder and louder with every passing mile, until it transformed into the buzzing of planes, the roar of flames and the cacophony of exploding munitions. Breathing in the air, I inhaled the scent of worn leather upholstery, the musky odors of previous passengers, even a trace of the sweet aroma of fruit eaten by an earlier traveler. The jumbled fragrance was overcome by the noxious scent of fire that incinerated fuel, rubber, and human flesh.”
Inspiration is a funny thing—there’s no telling when it’s going to pop up and take you by surprise. Once I was sitting in Gruene Hall listening to a performance, focused on the lead guitarist when, without warning, my imagination asked: “Can you kill someone with a guitar string?” I talked to a few musicians and found out that, yes, you can. They even told me the best string to use. That became the starting point of a novel, BITE THE MOON.
My latest work of fiction, SCANDAL IN THE SECRET CITY, was inspired less by a flight of fancy and more by hard, cold reality. I was researching a true crime book about Raynella Dossett Leath. She claimed one of her two husbands died in a cattle stampede and the other in a three-shot suicide. The story was tragic and bizarre and included the accidental death of a child, a sordid love affair, an attempted murder, and two medical examiners threatening law enforcement with firearms. But what really stirred up my creativity was learning out that Raynella spent a chunk of her childhood living in the Secret City.
Now known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Secret City was absolutely amazing. During World War II, the government created a colony of 70,000 residents seemingly overnight on 52,000 acres of forest and farmland in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was not on any map and the army originally called it “Kingston Demolition Range.” The purpose of the facility was the purification of uranium for use in the bomb that eventually fell on Hiroshima.
Most people working there had no idea of what they were doing. The Calutron Girls, in particular, knew the parameters to follow when they sat in front of their dials and knew how to react to keep everything on track but they had no idea of what they were measuring. In the next tier were the entry level chemists. They knew they were working with uranium but they weren’t allowed to call it by the proper name and they weren’t allowed to discuss theories about their ultimate mission. Being scientists, they were a curious bunch and turned it into a dangerous, whispered guessing game.
For the sake of winning the war, all these people were supposed to live with secrets without asking questions. All the while, they coped without many modern day conveniences. They lost their shoes in the mud of this primitive settlement; they went without real coffee or chocolate; and struggled with rationed meat, sugar, and other things they’d taken for granted before the war. They tolerated censored mail and phone calls, limited freedom of movement and the seemingly arbitrary nature of the rules established by the military. And they did it all behind a fence, in a dry county where even Tennessee sipping whiskey had to be smuggled past the guards.
In this high security background, people with disparate geographical locations, education, upbringing, and social standing were tossed together in close proximity, breaking down the barriers that often kept them separated in the real world.
In SCANDAL IN THE SECRET CITY, Libby Clark, an idealistic female chemist who wanted nothing more than to do her bit for her country and avenge the death of her cousin at Pearl Harbor, was transported to the this wilderness to do just that. Libby didn’t fit in with her fellow scientists because she was a woman. She didn’t find much in common with the other women because she had chosen a career over marriage, motherhood and a white picket fence. Her roommate, Ruth, was a Tennessee country girl who liked Libby precisely because she was different from all the others.
When the two women found Ruth’s sister lying dead in the bleachers at the high school, the military and the administration insisted they were mistaken. Libby, however, believed that even in wartime truth and justice matter. Since the authorities weren’t going to do the right thing, she enlisted an unlikely group of like-minded scientists to track down the killer of an innocent girl.
In selecting Scandal in the Secret City as the pick of the month, the Library Journal wrote: “True crime and mystery writer Fanning launches a fascinating new historical series that also offers an almost sociological study of women’s issues during World War II. Her refreshingly original amateur sleuth is smart, strong-willed, and independent in an era when marriage was usually the only career option for women. Libby is bound by her word to help uncover the truth, even when it puts her in danger. Readers will be engrossed by a gripping puzzler of a mystery and authentic details regarding America’s ‘Secret City’ and its role in the development of the atomic bomb.”
Throughout her investigation and her work for the Manhattan Project, Libby had one question that evaded a clear, universal answer: do the ends justify the means? She struggled with it through a broad variety of personal and professional scenarios while the relentless work to create the first atomic bomb cast a fatal shadow over it all.
Diane Fanning is the Edgar-nominated writer is the author of thirteen true crime books as well as seven books in the Lt. Lucinda Pierce crime fiction series. She has appeared on the Today Show, 48 Hours, 20/20, Forensic Files, Snapped, the Biography Channel, Investigation Discovery, E! and the BBC as well as numerous cable network news shows and radio stations across the States and Canada. Raised in Baltimore, she moved to Virginia, then Texas and she now lives in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Bedford, Virginia.
To learn more about Diane, please visit her website.
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