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The Prodigal Spyby Joseph Kanon
Synopses & Reviews
Washington, 1950. The trouble with history, Nick Kotlar's father tells him, is that you have to live through it before you know how it'll come out. And for Walter Kotlar, a high-level State Department official, the stakes couldn't be higher: an ambitious congressman has accused him of treason. As Nick watches helplessly, his family's privileged world is turned upside down in a frenzy of klieg lights and banging gavels. Then one snowy night the chief witness against his father plunges to her death and his father flees, leaving only an endless mystery and the stain of his defection. It would be better, Nick is told, to think of him as dead. But 20 years later Walter Kotlar is still alive, and he enlists Molly, a young journalist, to bring Nick a disturbing message. He badly wants to see his son; after two decades of silence and isolation, he is desperate to end his own Cold War. Resentful but intrigued, Nick agrees to accompany Molly to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia for the painful reunion. Once in Prague, Nick finds a clandestine world where nothing is what it seems — not the beautiful city, shadowy with menace; not the woman with whom he falls in love; and most of all not the man he thinks he no longer knows, yet still knows better than anyone. For Walter Kotlar has an impossible request: he wants to come home and he wants Nick to help. He also has a valuable secret about what really happened the night he walked out of Nick's life — and about the deadly conspiracy that still threatens them.
"An edgy spy thriller...[and] a tale of love — between father and son, man and woman — set against a foreboding background that is poignant and imminently believable....Captivating." The Denver Post
"Compelling...intriguing...superb....reads beautifully and convinces utterly." The Wall Street Journal
"Intriguing...Kanon wonderfully conveys the paranoia of the times....The Prodigal Spy has a richness of emotional layers usually not found in espionage novels." USA Today
"Vivid...tense...reheats the Cold War with history, mystery and a political blast from the past." People
"Kanon does a fine job...blending history, fiction, suspense and romance...but what he does the best is to turn more than a few moments in our history into a personal story that shows the reality of what we have done and can do to each other." Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
This story set during the infamous McCarthy era revolves around the son of an American government official who is discovered to be a Russian spy. Readers follow the father and son over 20 years in an ordeal that involves murder, spies, shocking revelations about the past, and a passionate affair.
He was not allowed to attend the hearing. There was his age, for one thing, but he knew it was really the reporters. From his bedroom window he could see them every morning when his father left the house. Mr. Benjamin, his father's lawyer, would come for him--it was somehow unthinkable that he should make the short walk down 2nd Street to the Capitol alone--and the minute they were down the steps Nick would see the clusters of hats swooping toward them like birds. There was even a kind of ritual about it now. No one stood in front of the house. Usually they were across the street, or on the corner, drinking coffee from paper cups, exhaling little puffs of steam in the cold February air. Then the front door would open and they would stamp out their cigarettes, suddenly on duty, and surround his father, falling into step with him and Mr. Benjamin as if they were joining them for a stroll.
In the beginning there had been photographers, their hats pushed back on their heads as they popped flashbulbs, but now there were just the reporters. No one yelled or pushed. The ritual had turned polite. He could see his father in his long herringbone coat drawing the pack with him as he moved down the street, Mr. Benjamin, terrier-like, hurrying to keep up. His father never ignored the reporters. Nick could see him talking--but what did he say?--and nodding his head. Once Nick saw one of them laugh. His father had said the whole thing was a goddam circus, but from up here in the window, watching the hats, it seemed friendly, a gang of boys heading for school. It wasn't, though. At night, alone in the study, smoking in the light of the desk lamp, his father looked worried.
His mother always left separately. She would busy herself with Nora, arranging the day, then stand in front of the hall mirror, touching her hair, smoothing out her wool skirt, while a cigarette burned in the ashtray on the table where they put the mail. When Nick came downstairs she would look surprised, as if she had forgotten he was in the house, then nervously pick up her lipstick to get ready. Her new dress, with its tight cinched waist and fitted top, seemed designed to hold her upright, every piece of her in place.
"Have they gone?" she said, putting on the lipstick.
"Uh-huh. Dad made one of them laugh."
Her hand stopped for a minute, then the red tube continued along her lip. "Did he," she said, blotting her lips, but it wasn't a question. "Well, I'll give them another five minutes."
"They never wait for you, you know," Nick said. It was one of the things that puzzled him. His mother walked to the hearings alone every day, not even a single straggler from the pack of hats waiting behind to catch her. How did they think she got there?
"They will one day," she said, picking up her hat. "Right now all they can think about is your father. And his jokes." She caught the edge in her voice and glanced at him, embarrassed, then went back to the hat.
"There was only one," Nick said.
"I know," she said quietly. "I didn't mean-- Check the window again, would you? And shouldn't you be getting ready for school?"
"I am ready," he said, going over to the window. "I don't see why I can't go to the trial."
"Not again, Nicky, please. And it's not a trial. For the hundredth time. It's a hearing. That's all. A congressional hearing."
"What's the difference?"
"Your father's not a criminal, that's the difference. He's not on trial for anything."
"Everybody acts like he is."
"What do you mean? Has anyone said anything to you at school?"
"They said he's on trial for being a Communist."
His mother stopped fixing the hat and lowered her hands. "Well, he's not on trial and he's not a Communist. So much for what they know. Just don't listen, okay? It only makes it worse. They're looking for Communists, so they have to talk to a lot of people in the government, that's all."
Nick came back to the mirror, studying them both, as if the world reflected would be his mother's cheerful dream of before, when all they had to worry about was school gossip.
"They want to hear what he has to say. That's why it's called a hearing. There," she said, pressing the hat like a protective shell. "How do I look?"
Nick smiled. "Beautiful."
"Oh, you always say that," she said lightly, glancing at the mirror again and leaning forward. Nick loved to watch her dress, disappearing to the edge of her careful absorption. It was the harmless vanity of a pretty girl who'd been taught that how you looked mattered, that appearance could somehow determine events. She blotted her lips one last time, then noticed his expression. "Honeybun, what's wrong?"
"Why can't I hear him too? I'm not a little kid anymore."
"No," she said softly, touching the side of his head. "Maybe just to me. But ten isn't very old either, is it? You don't want to grow up too fast."
"Is he going to go to jail?"
She knelt down to face him, holding his shoulders. "No. Look, I know all of this seems confusing. But it's not about you, do you understand? Just--grownups. Your dad's fine. You don't want him to have to worry about you too, do you? It's--it's a bad time, that's all."
A bad time. Nora, for whom Ireland was always just a memory away, called it troubles. "Before your father's troubles started," she would say, as if everything that was happening to them were beyond their control, like the weather. But no one would tell him what it actually was.
"You go," he said stubbornly.
"It's different for me. You're just a child--it has nothing to do with you. It's not going to, either. I'm not going to let that happen," she said, holding his shoulders tightly. "Do you understand?"
He didn't, but he nodded, surprised at the force of her hands.
"You'll be late," Nora said, coming into the hall.
His mother looked up, distracted. "Yes, all right. Come on, honeybun, time for school. It'll be all right. You'll see. This won't last much longer, I promise. Then we'll go up to the cabin and forget all about it. Just us. Would you like that?"
Nick nodded. "You mean out of school?"
"Well, in the spring."
"Don't forget you've got Father Tim coming over later," Nora said. "You'll want to be back. Last time he was halfway through the bottle before you were through the door."
"Nora," his mother said, pretending to scold but laughing in spite of herself. "Listen to you. He's not a drinker."
"No, the poor are drinkers. The rich just don't mind if they do."
"He's not rich anymore. He's a priest, for heaven's sake," she said, putting on her coat.
"The rich don't change. Someone else's bottle, that's what they like. Maybe that's why they're rich. Still, it's your bottle, and if you don't mind I'm sure I--"
"Nora, stop babbling. I'll be back. Coast clear?" She nodded her head toward the window. "How about a kiss, then?" She leaned down to let Nick graze her cheek. "Oh, that's better. I'm ready for anything now."
At the door she put on her gloves. "You remember what I said, okay? Don't listen to the other kids if they start saying things. They don't know what they're talking about anyway."
"It wasn't the other kids. About Dad. It was Miss Smith."
"Oh." His mother stopped, flustered, her shoulders sagging. "Oh, honeybun," she said, and then, as if she had finally run out of answers, she turned and went out the door.
After that, he didn't go to school. "At least for a while," his mother said, still pretending that things were normal. Now, after his parents left, the house would grow still, so quiet that he would tiptoe, listening for the sharp whistle of Nora's kettle in the kitchen, then the rustle of newspaper as she pored over his father's troubles with one of her cups of tea. He was supposed to be reading Kidnapped. His mother said he was the right age for it, but after the wicked uncle and the broken stairs in the dark it all got confusing--Whigs and Jacobites, and you didn't know whose side you were supposed to be on. It made no more sense than the papers. His father was a New Dealer but not a Communist, and not a Republican either, according to Nora. Then why was he on trial? Some terrible woman had said he was a spy, but you only had to look at her, all made up the way she was, to know she was lying. And a Catholic too, which made things worse. It was the Jews who loved Russia, not people like his father, even though she'd hate to think how long it had been since he'd seen the inside of a church. Still. And the things they said. But when Nick asked her to see the newspapers himself, she'd refuse. His mother wouldn't like it.
So he sat in the deep club chair in the living room, pretending to read but listening instead. While Nora had her tea there was no sound but the ticking of the ormolu clock. Soon, however, he'd hear the scraping of a chair in the kitchen, then the heavy steps in the hall as Nora came to peek in before she began her chores. Nick would turn a page, his head bent to the book he wasn't reading until he felt her slip out of the doorway and head upstairs. After another few minutes, the vacuum would start with a roar and he could go. He would race down the back kitchen stairs, careful not to hit the creaky fourth step, and get the newspaper from behind the bread box, where Nora always hid it. Then, one ear still alert to the vacuum, he would read about the trial. KOTLAR DENIES ALLEGATIONS. COMMITTEE THREATENS CONTEMPT. MUNDT SET TO CALL ACHESON. NEW KOTLAR TESTIMONY. It always gave him an odd sensation to see his name in print. His eye would flash down the column, "Kotlar" leaping out as if it were in boldface, not just another word in a blur of type. But it was Kidnapped all over again. Whigs and Jacobites.
The newspapers became part of the spy game. The point at first was to see how many rooms he could visit without Nora's knowing--from the kitchen up to his father's study, then past the bedroom where she was working (this was the best part) to his mother's dressing room, then back down the stairs (carefully now, the vacuum having gone silent) and into the club chair with the open book before she appeared again. Not that she would have cared if he'd left the room--it was just the game. Stuck in the house, cocooned against the cold outside that kept promising snow, he learned its secrets, the noisy parts, the bad floorboards, as if they were bits of Braille. He could even spy on Nora, watching through the crack in the door, crouching halfway down the stairs, until he felt he could roam the house at will, invisible. His father, he knew, could never have done this. You always knew where he was, clunking down the hall to the bathroom at night, all his weight on his heels. His mother said you could feel him a block away. It was Nick who knew how to spy. He could stand absolutely still, like one of those movie submarines with the motors off, on sonar silence, waiting to hear something.
Then one day, by accident, he finally saw his father at the hearing.
In a time of accusations, treachery and lies, some secrets were heartbreaking....
Others were deadly.
Once, Nick Kotlar tried to save his father. From the angry questions. From the accusations. From a piece of evidence that only Nick knew about and that he destroyed—for his father. But in the Red Scare of 1950 Walter Kotlar could not be saved. Branded a spy, he fled the country, leaving behind a wife, a young son—and a key witness lying dead below her D.C. hotel room.
Now, twenty years later, Nick will get a second chance. Because a beautiful journalist has brought a message from his long-lost father, and Nick will follow her into Soviet-occupied Prague for a painful reunion. Confronting a father he barely remembers and a secret that could change everything, Nick knows he must return to the place where it all began: to unravel a lie, to penetrate a deadly conspiracy, and to expose the one person who knew the truth—and watched a family be destroyed.
About the Author
After a distinguished career in book publishing, Joseph Kanon turned to writing fiction. He is the author of Los Alamos, a New York Times bestseller that won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1997. He lives in New York City.
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