The uncommon family business of selling information to Russia proves exciting, lucrative and remarkably misguided.
An adolescent Nathan Nicholson didn’t believe the FBI agents who came to his door and announced that his father had been arrested for espionage. Though he had suspicions that his father might be a spy, he thought the charges of selling secrets to Russia must have been a setup. Nathan grew up idolizing his dad, and even when Jim admitted to Nathan and his siblings that the charges were true, Nathan had a hard time believing it. Convinced there was some other explanation, he remained certain of Jim’s good character and strove to please the father he only saw in prison visiting rooms. After an injury resulting in an honorable discharge from the Army, Nathan went into an emotional tailspin, leaning on his beloved father for support. In need of money and, more importantly, a sense of direction, Nathan agreed to make contact with Russia on his dad’s behalf, asking for money and passing on information from Jim in return. Oregonian investigative reporter Denson, winner of the George Polk Award, traced Nathan’s and Jim’s stories all the way to the beginning, and he spends a good deal of the narrative setting the scene for Nathan’s eventual willingness to betray the country he loved at his father’s behest. The intricate portrait of Nicholson family life makes the father-son crime feel inevitable without ever coming off as dull. Denson puts his reporting chops to good use, packing the book with information but never overwhelming readers and maintaining tension, interest and momentum. Despite a confusing—but thankfully short—digression into a 2010 spy swap between Russia and the U.S., the author proves himself more than capable of taking the leap from long-form newspaper stories to books.
Other than spies, this book has little in common with spy thrillers, but it’s just as captivating.