Title: The Prodigal Spy
Author: Joseph Kanon
Kanon, Joseph (1998). The Prodigal Spy. New York: Broadway Books
PS3561.A476 P76 1998
- Americans–Czech Republic–Fiction.
- Fathers and sons–Fiction.
- Czech Republic–Fiction.
Date Posted: November 2, 2017
Review by Morton Kondracke
Three defenestrations punctuate this thriller about a traitorous State Department official.
Nick Warren, the hero of this moderately engrossing novel, has spycraft in his genes. He inherits it from his father, Walter Kotlar, a high-ranking State Department official who is reeled in to Moscow by his Soviet masters in 1950, when Nick is 10. In the end, he far surpasses his father in courage, wile and capacity for violence.
Joseph Kanon, whose Los Alamos won an Edgar Award as the best first novel of 1997, establishes Nick’s aptitude for spying in the first chapter of The Prodigal Spy, when the boy discovers and destroys evidence that could prove his father has lied to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also eavesdrops on and briefly tails his father, whom he dearly loves, on the day he defects—the day that Rosemary Cochrane, a salesgirl who received Kotlar’s secrets and who turned him over to the committee, dies in a fall from a Washington hotel window.
But the main action occurs in 1969, after Nick has served a tour in Vietnam and is at the London School of Economics researching McCarthyism. His surname is Warren because he was adopted by his stepfather, an old family friend who is now one of Richard Nixon’s chief negotiators at the Paris peace talks. At an embassy dinner party, Nick encounters an engaging young woman, Molly Chisholm, who says she has met Kotlar in Prague and conveys an urgent request that the son cross to the Eastern bloc to visit.
They travel together, with only implications that they may fall in love sustaining the reader through a desultory journey. In Prague, Nick discovers that his father is terminally ill, is disillusioned with Communism and—the prodigal spy—is determined to return to the United States to expose the people who killed Rosemary Cochrane and are still manning a Communist spy network in the capital. He thinks he was forced to leave Washington to protect the identity of another agent, code-named “Silver.” It’s not a political awakening, newfound appreciation for the West or even anger at his handlers that fuels Kotlar’s determination. He just wants to go home, and he thinks that turning in Communists will win him welcome.
But Kotlar doesn’t make it, and Nick and Molly—after a thrilling escape from Czechoslovak security agents—take up his mission back in Washington, where the action, though exciting, is a bit implausible. Armed with Kotlar’s list of the spies’ old addresses—no names—Nick and Molly randomly follow people who come and go from the buildings and strike pay dirt. Silver passes his secrets to a saleswoman at the same department store counter where Rosemary Cochrane collected Kotlar’s in 1950. Retired cops and F.B.I. agents—even the chairman of HUAC and J. Edgar Hoover—tell Nick secrets simply because he asks.
Besides plausibility, this novel lacks a sense of stakes. Kotlar claims to Nick that he never really did the United States any harm, that he just passed on his in-box. Yet the position he held—No. 2 in the State Department—meant he would have known major diplomatic secrets. Silver, too, is in a position to do significant damage, but nothing is made of the fact.
There’s a sense about this book that the whole business of spying and treason—indeed, the whole Cold War—wasn’t about very much, nothing that people ought to die over. Kanon isn’t exactly mired in moral equivalence. Communists are responsible for most of the perfidy and all three of the defenestrations that punctuate the book. But Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia are portrayed as parallel blunders. Stalin’s purges are rendered as brutal, but American anti-Communist “witch hunts” are presented, just as negatively and more vividly, as the work of imbeciles.
To be sure, a spy novel need not be politically correct to be readable. But a novelist ought to make readers care what happens. The best Kanon does is to have Nick and Molly be an attractive pair of adventurers and to keep some suspense going about Silver’s identity. It’s not enough to win prizes.
 Morton Kondracke, “ Fall Guys,” The New York Times Books (February 28, 1999), accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/02/28/reviews/990228.28kondrat.html . Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, a Washington newspaper.