STARRED REVIEW
May 2015

The family who spies together

By Bryan Denson
Review by
In his early Cold War novels, John le Carré referred to something called “Moscow Rules”: the tradecraft used by spies in a hostile city when they had to be super-cautious to avoid getting caught. If you want to learn the 21st-century equivalent of those rules, The Spy’s Son is a great place to start—although in real life, they don’t always work as smoothly as in fiction.
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In his early Cold War novels, John le Carré referred to something called “Moscow Rules”: the tradecraft used by spies in a hostile city when they had to be super-cautious to avoid getting caught. If you want to learn the 21st-century equivalent of those rules, The Spy’s Son is a great place to start—although in real life, they don’t always work as smoothly as in fiction.

Author Bryan Denson, an experienced journalist, leads us step by step through an extraordinary espionage case that stretched, in two phases, from the mid-1990s to 2011. In phase one, Jim Nicholson, a rising star in the CIA, sold his agency’s secrets to the Russians to get himself out of a financial jam. He was caught and sent to prison. Then, in a remarkable twist in 2006, Jim, still imprisoned, recruited his son Nathan to sell more secrets to the Russians.

Nathan was a somewhat adrift young man in his 20s who loved his father too much to fathom how he was being manipulated into treachery. With words of paternal care and religious faith, Jim lured his son into his scheme. The Russians were happy to play along; luckily for U.S. national security, the FBI caught on to Nathan as fast as it had to his father.

The book’s strength is its wonderful detail. We follow Nathan as he meets his grizzled Russian spymaster “George” in San Francisco, Lima, Mexico City and Malta; we track the FBI agents on his trail. The feds wouldn’t let Jim talk to Denson, but we end the book with a strong sense of the two-time spy’s plans and motives. Clever and narcissistic, Jim did love his son. But he had no compunction about turning him into his “last asset.”

 

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Spy’s Son

The Spy’s Son

By Bryan Denson
Atlantic Monthly
ISBN 9780802123589

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