Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Spy’s Son

The True Story of the Highest-Ranking CIA Officer Ever Convicted of Espionage and the Son He Trained to Spy for Russia

by Bryan Denson

The captivating true story of the highest-ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage, and the devoted son who followed him into the family spy business.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date May 10, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2519-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist Bryan Denson tells the riveting and extraordinary true story of the Nicholsons—father and son co-conspirators who deceived their country by selling national secrets to Russia.

Jim Nicholson was one of the CIA’s top veteran case officers. By day, he taught spycraft at the CIA’s clandestine training center, The Farm. By night, he was a minivan-driving single father racing home to have dinner with his three kids. But Nicholson led a double life. For more than two years, he had met covertly with agents of Russia’s foreign intelligence service in locations around the world and turned over troves of classified documents, including the identities of hundreds of trainees. In 1997, Nicholson became the highest ranking CIA officer ever convicted of espionage. But his duplicity didn’t stop there.

While behind the bars of a federal prison, the former mole systematically groomed the one person he trusted most to serve as his stand-in: his youngest son, Nathan. In his early twenties, deeply depressed after suffering a serious injury during military training, Nathan was easy prey for his father. When Nicholson asked him to courier messages out of prison to his Russian contacts, Nathan saw an opportunity to not only make something of himself but to make his father proud by following him into the spy world.

The Spy’s Son is a fast-paced, thrilling account that takes readers inside the private meeting rooms of the FBI and CIA, into the intrigues of international cat-and-mouse espionage games, and behind the closed doors of a family struggling to stay together through the deepest of betrayals.

Tags Espionage


“The uncommon family business of selling information to Russia proves exciting, lucrative and remarkably misguided . . . 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. . . . Captivating.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In a stunning piece of reporting Bryan Denson has unraveled one of the strangest spy stories in American history and written a haunting book as fast paced and as exciting as the best spy novel. It will keep readers awake as he takes them deep into a world of international espionage populated by KGB and CIA agents, American spy catchers and a family they’ll never forget—and it’s all true.” —Robert Lindsey, author of The Falcon and the Snowman

“Superbly entertaining and informative . . . easily the intelligence book of the year.” —Washington Times

“Engaging . . . a noirish thriller that happens to be true.” —Wall Street Journal

“[Denson] tackles the story with zest. . . . While The Spy’s Son packs plenty of spy-vs.-spy drama, the more interesting chapters are about the bond between a father and his son.” —Washington Post

“Swaggering true-crime . . . This hardboiled, film noir page-turner is a compelling read, sure to fascinate fanatics of intrigue.” —Winnipeg Free Press

“Startling . . . Denson has a knack for sly wordplay and descriptions.” —Christian Science Monitor

“An extraordinary espionage case. . . . The book’s strength is its wonderful detail.” —BookPage

“Filled with fascinating details of the cloak-and-dagger techniques of KGB and CIA operatives, double agents, and spy catchers . . . a poignant and painful tale of family love, loyalty, manipulation and betrayal.” —The Oregonian

“We always think of the damage a spy does to his country, and to his colleagues and friends, but seldom to his family. This is the solemn and excruciating tale of a real spy who intentionally and selfishly used his son as a go-between himself and his Russian masters after he had been caught and imprisoned, and nearly ruined his son’s life into the bargain. It is a splendid read.” —Frederick P. Hitz, former CIA inspector general, senior lecturer at University of Virginia, and author of The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage

The Spy’s Son is an intelligence service’s worst nightmare—a double agent inside its walls. Human foibles of hubris and greed drive Jim Nicholson to betray his nation’s deepest secrets and his own family. Denson’s telling of the tale is riveting, agonizing, and for a former spook like me, sometimes heart-stopping.” —Valerie Plame, author of Fair Game

The Spy’s Son expertly chronicles Jim Nicholson’s cold-blooded betrayal of both country and son. A gripping nonfiction read on par with a John Le Carre’s thriller.” —Pete Earley, author of Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames

“Gripping insight into the quiet war of spies, deception and treachery. As a former special agent, The Spy’s Son should be required reading for agents and anyone else interested in the cloak and dagger world of espionage.” —Fred Burton, Stratfor, VP Intelligence, author of Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi

The Spy’s Son is the amazing account of the dysfunctional Nicholson family’s foray into the treacherous world of selling out one’s country to the Russians. Denson’s suspenseful story of the Nicholsons’ reprehensible activities is an adventurous read, revealing tradecraft used by both spies and spy catchers. A true-life spy story spanning two decades in countries around the world, it is packed with danger, suspense and intrigue.” —Alan B. Trabue, CIA (Ret.), author of A Life of Lies and Spies


Jim had told his son that his meetings with the Russian were potentially dangerous. “Risky,” he had said, “but not illegal.” Nathan now suspected that couldn’t possibly be true. Facts had gotten in the way. The evidence, he knew, would show he had smuggled his dad’s notes out of the prison, carried them to first-name-only Russians in diplomatic stations in San Francisco, Mexico City, and Lima. They had paid for the information with bagfuls of hundred-dollar bills. Both his dad and the Russian had repeatedly cautioned him to keep an eye out for surveillance, and the old man had taught him basic spy skills to avoid detection—clearly signs that all was not on the up and up. It was now abundantly clear to Nathan that he and his dad were no longer just father and son, but co-conspirators tempting fate each time he met the Russian.

At precisely 7 p.m., Nathan caught a glimpse of a short, grayhaired man walking toward the restaurant. He forced himself to look away until he heard the Russian’s unmistakably precise English, words that came almost in a whisper.

“Do you know the way to the federal post office?”

Nathan turned, as if they had never met. His handler stood at five-foot-six, a couple of inches shorter than he, with white hair, dark gray eyes, and a thick neck. He would turn seventy-four the following month. Nathan was supposed to speak his end of the recognition dialogue, an exchange Russian spies call parols. But it felt pointless to him. They had now met on three continents, spent hours talking in soundproof rooms. They were, by anyone’s measure, acquainted. But Nathan wouldn’t disappoint him.

“It should be around here somewhere,” he said, lifting the prop in his hand: the map of Nicosia. “Let me show you the way.”