Kate’s Review: “American Kingpin”

31920777Book: “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton

Publishing Info: Portfolio, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In 2011, a twenty-six-year-old libertarian programmer named Ross Ulbricht launched the ultimate free market: the Silk Road, a clandestine Web site hosted on the Dark Web where anyone could trade anything–drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons–free of the government’s watchful eye.
It wasn’t long before the media got wind of the new Web site where anyone–not just teenagers and weed dealers but terrorists and black hat hackers–could buy and sell contraband detection-free. Spurred by a public outcry, the federal government launched an epic two-year manhunt for the site’s elusive proprietor, with no leads, no witnesses, and no clear jurisdiction. All the investigators knew was that whoever was running the site called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts.

The Silk Road quickly ballooned into $1.2 billion enterprise, and Ross embraced his new role as kingpin. He enlisted a loyal crew of allies in high and low places, all as addicted to the danger and thrill of running an illegal marketplace as their customers were to the heroin they sold. Through his network he got wind of the target on his back and took drastic steps to protect himself–including ordering a hit on a former employee. As Ross made plans to disappear forever, the Feds raced against the clock to catch a man they weren’t sure even existed, searching for a needle in the haystack of the global Internet.
Drawing on exclusive access to key players and two billion digital words and images Ross left behind, Vanity Fair correspondent and New York Times bestselling author Nick Bilton offers a tale filled with twists and turns, lucky breaks and unbelievable close calls. It’s a story of the boy next door’s ambition gone criminal, spurred on by the clash between the new world of libertarian-leaning, anonymous, decentralized Web advocates and the old world of government control, order, and the rule of law. Filled with unforgettable characters and capped by an astonishing climax, American Kingpin might be dismissed as too outrageous for fiction. But it’s all too real.

Review: There is a misconception about the true crime genre, and that is the thought that there are only books about blood, violence, murder, and serial killers to be had. While those are certainly some of the more popular topics in the scope of the genre, you can find a large number of books about less violent crimes. So for those of you who like the idea of reading up on something salacious and scandalous, but are squeamish when it comes to violence and death, I may have a good true crime fit for you. It involves a whole lot of the scandal and law breaking, and outlandish twists and turns that don’t seem real, but is, for the most part, low on body counts. And you may never look at “The Princess Bride” the same way again after reading it. Let me introduce you to “American Kingpin”.

“American Kingpin” is the story of the rise of The Silk Road, a website that acted as a black market for drugs that was hidden within the Dark Web. It was founded by a man named Ross Ulbricht, who initially saw it as a way for people to have access to illegal drugs, a value that lined up with his Libertarian beliefs. His internet handle was “The Dread Pirate Roberts”, and he remained fairly anonymous for years. As his website and fortune grew, so did his love of power, and his need to hold onto it by any means necessary. Along with his story are the stories of the various law enforcement officers who tracked him, and even got embroiled with him and The Silk Road, in hopes of catching him. And boy, is it a doozy. Nick Bilton does a very good job of keeping all of the complicated character threads straight, and slowly weaves them together to create an all encompassing big picture that reads like a thriller novel. He writes not so much sympathetic, but well laid out backgrounds of the people, and I think that seeing Ulbricht especially in a complex light was important. But it never took away from the fact that this guy was an entitled, privileged, single minded narcissist who thought he was untouchable, and went from drum circle college student to a man who was taking out hits on those who crossed him. While calling himself The Dread Pirate Roberts of all things!

The narrative itself moves at a fast pace, and given that the events are so outlandish that they read like fiction, it has a high entertainment factor. Like the cast of players, I felt like I was reading a thriller novel as opposed to a non fiction account, and it really speaks to how good of a narrative non fiction writer Bilton is. There were multiple moments I shouted out ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’ Specifically when it was noted that The Silk Road considered dabbling in human organs. HUMAN. ORGANS.

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I had to set the book down and laugh in despondency. (source)

As Ulbricht’s scheming escalated the tension did as well. The book is very well researched, and it’s constructed in a way that gives a pretty evenly distributed amount between the players and the goings on in all of their lives, and how they connected to each other. I had a very hard time putting it down as I was reading, and even though I had a pretty basic working knowledge of the story thanks to the “Casefile” podcast series on it, there was still a lot of information at hand that never got bogged down by the sheer volume of it all. Bilton is also certain to push back against the idea of the Libertarian Utopia of the Silk Road being ‘victimless’ in its drug business, detailing one especially sad story about someone who was an unwitting purveyor of drugs from the site… and then suffered terrible consequences because of it. While Bilton never outright maligns the values that Ulbricht was striving to champion, he definitely makes a very compelling case for debating them. It never feels preachy; just matter of fact.

All in all, “American Kingpin” is a thrilling write up of a truly unbelievable crime. If you’ve been curious about the new true crime interest in our culture, but are wary when it comes to violence and murder, I would absolutely recommend this rollercoaster of a book.

Rating 8: A tense and VERY addictive true crime thriller, “American Kingpin” does a great job chronicling the rise and fall of a black market empire and the man who was behind it all.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Kingpin” is included on the Goodreads lists “Scary Tech? Big Data, Surveillance, Information Overload, Tech Addiction, Propaganda, Dark Money..”, and “Murderino Reading List!”

Find “American Kingpin” at your library using WorldCat!

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