An espionage novelist to rival John Le Carre

John Le CarreJoseph Kanon has been writing spy novels set largely in post-World War II Europe since 1997, when his debut novel, Los Alamos, was published. That book won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel — well-deserved recognition for an outstanding thriller that was also an accomplished work of historical fiction. Most of his six later novels were equally captivating: well-written, well-researched, and well received by critics and readers alike.


The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


The Prodigal Spy, the only one of Kanon’s seven novels that I hadn’t yet read, was his second book. Unfortunately, like so many second novels, it appears to have been a struggle to write. The novel is very slow on the uptake, requiring a long, sometimes tedious recitation of the childhood observations of its protagonist, Nick Kotlar. Only in Part Two of a three-part novel does the action really get going.

Un-American activities

Unlike Kanon’s previous work, which is set in the years 1945 to about 1950, The Prodigal Spy opens in 1950, slips directly to 1953, and then gets really interesting in 1969. The subject matter revolves around the anti-Communist witch-hunt in the United States in the 1950s. The story focuses on a Congressional committee that is a stand-in for HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which is distinguished by having conducted its affairs in a markedly Un-American manner without having uncovered more than a handful of ineffectual Communists. In Kanon’s novel, an investigation by the Committee leads to the exposure of a genuine Communist spy in the State Department. That spy turns out to have been Nick Kotlar’s father, Walter.

An action-filled spy novel

Nick Kotlar grows up under the shadow of his notorious father and cuts a path through life that is meant to prove that he is a true patriot. He even serves as a soldier in Vietnam for a time. When his mother remarries a wealthy family friend, “Uncle Larry” Warren, a senior Washington official, Nick is happy to take his new name.

When the book finally gets around to 1969, Nick is 29 and a graduate student at the London School of Economics, and the action gets underway. He is befriended by a young woman who, it turns out, is carrying a message from his father. Nick had long thought his father dead in Moscow. Now he resolves to visit the old man in his new home in Prague, with the young woman in tow. Naturally, romance blooms, though not right away.

I loved every other one of Joseph Kanon’s novels. I merely liked this one.

For additional reading     

For reviews of all of this author’s espionage novels, see Joseph Kanon’s spy thrillers are superb.

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