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The Prodigal Spy

Cover of The Prodigal Spy

The Prodigal Spy

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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.

From the Paperback edition.

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.

From the Paperback edition.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One

    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?"

    Nick shrugged.

    "Have they?"

    "They said he's on trial for being a...

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.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 30, 1998
    Kanon's second novel, after the very well-received Los Alamos, is somewhat disappointing. He ventures into John le Carre territory, telling the tale of an American State Department official, hounded by the McCarthyites in 1950, who proves them right by abruptly decamping to the Soviet Union in the middle of congressional hearings into his loyalty. The tale of Walter Koltar is told by his son Nick, both at the time of his disappearance, when Nick is a small boy not quite understanding what is happening to his father, and nearly 20 years later, when he receives a mysterious summons to visit his father, now living in Czechoslovakia, just after the illusory "Prague Spring" of 1968. Walter wants to return home and thinks he has a trump card that will make that possible. Will Nick help out? As he proved in Los Alamos, Kanon is very adept at rendering the feeling and atmosphere of another time, and his early chapters are powerful evocations of that strange period in American life. He is good, too, on the bizarre quality of life in Prague after the Soviet invasion. The book is thoughtful, often penetrating, though at its considerable length, and with its comparatively small cast--Nick; his abandoned mother; his stepfather, Larry (another top Washington official); and his girlfriend Molly--it sometimes is a bit claustrophobic. The real problems appear in the last 100 pages, where the pace accelerates, J. Edgar Hoover is introduced as a not altogether convincing walk-on, and Nick takes a catastrophic action that seems entirely out of character with how he has been presented previously. It is as if the conventions of the spy thriller are working against Kanon's real strengths, which are in the creation of character as forged by intelligently re-created history.

  • Denver Post

    "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."

  • Wall Street Journal "Compelling...intriguing...superb....reads beautifully and convinces utterly."
  • USA Today "Intriguing...Kanon wonderfully conveys the paranoia of the times....The Prodigal Spy has a richness of emotional layers usually not found in espionage novels."
  • People "Vivid...tense...reheats the Cold War with history, mystery and a political blast from the past."
  • Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel "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."
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