Sunday Story Ratings #71: The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon


The Prodigal Spy by Joseph Kanon

Originally published 1999; this edition 2000

Publisher: Abacus

Refused Classification; not for sale

(D, L, S, N, V)

Drug Use and References {MA15+} {Alcohol; Coffee; Marijuana; Smuggling (personal quantities of) marijuana across international borders; Smoking marijuana while driving}

Coarse Language {PG}

Nudity {MA15+}

Sex Scenes {X18+}

Violence {M}




Mix of male and female roles. Active roles mostly to men, but not exclusively. Thematic focus on father-son relations.


Heterosexual relationships only, within or without marriage, but no 'infidelity'. A relatively graphic scene depicting oral and PIV sex.

Race & Ethnicity:

Characters almost exclusively white American or white Eastern European. At least one character African American, but no speaking role.

Disability, Physical Diversity and Health:

A character is terminally ill.


None found.


I got this book because I'd noticed it on the shelf at the library where I work, and it seemed potentially interesting, and then a couple of weeks or months later it got weeded, so I claimed it. Caught my interest strongly from the beginning but then never delivered. Found the plot overall too forecastable too far ahead.

Rating this was a bit tricky, especially with the sex scene. Ended up asking myself "If this were filmed as-written, what would have to be shown? Could it be filmed with actors simulating sex, or would there need to be some degree of actual sexual contact going on?" Came down on the side of an accurate representation of the scene requiring sexual contact, which means by the rules there can be no violence coexisting in the story so it has to fall into Refused Classification.

The drug rating was idiosyncratic. Technically any rating from PG to MA goes to "Drug use should be justified by context", which I find so ambiguous as to be almost useless. For socially acceptable, legal drugs like coffee or alcohol I weight those to the low end of the rating scale, raising it as the behaviour depicted becomes less socially acceptable. Mostly illegal drugs would go under R18+ where "Drug use is permitted", unless the depiction is some manner of 'drugs are bad for you'. Since marijuana is in a fuzzy position of being almost socially acceptable and either legalised or experiencing a big push for legalisation in many jurisdictions I went for a compromise and treated it like a legal drug, but starting the scale at a higher rating than those get - the existence of marijuana in the story makes for an automatic PG, stepping higher for what I judge would be regarded against society-at-large as more severe or less-approved uses. In this case the characters enjoy the drug on multiple occasions, transport it across national lines despite express concern for severe consequences if caught (from England to Soviet Czechoslovakia), and indulge while driving a car. So I put that at MA, while if they'd got in trouble for their usage it might have only been an M rating since even though I personally don't care if folks use the stuff, I'm trying my best to interpret and apply a classification scheme written for films, to books, in a nation where marijuana is illegal.

Which is why I end up taking a book on which my opinion was 'meh' and evaluating it as "technically too racy to be sold in Australia".