American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road - Nick Bilton
January 27, 2021
Goodreads Book Blurb:
The unbelievable true story of the man who built a billion-dollar online drug empire from his bedroom—and almost got away with it.
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.
I was interested in the subject matter here but the writing let it down. Written as narrative non-fiction, there were just too many added details to make it believable. There’s a fine line to walk in books like this between journalistic integrity and an interesting story, unfortunately, it seems the author here chose the path of least resistance. This meant the story was easy to read but the important details in the case were glossed over in exchange for prose and story-telling.
For a book about the foundation and running of Silk Road, one of the first online marketplaces for illegal substances on the dark web to make use of Bitcoin, there were very few actual details about coding or the dark web or even technology or Bitcoin in general. The author made it seem like the founder, Ross Ulbricht, was a bumbling idiot who just managed to stumble upon creating this website. Then, in order to make it interesting, he had to make all the federal agents trying to find him either even bigger idiots or just corrupt, to make sure it explained why it took two years to find and arrest him.
With the numerous instances of imagined dialogue or thoughts, it was just too much. If Ross had contributed to the book, these situations would be different as it would have added some authenticity. Considering that neither Ross nor his family contributed, the author should have stuck to the facts. His own notes at the end of the book mention how much information he was allowed to peruse, he should’ve instead used the online chat logs to supplement his narrative rather than conjuring conversations from nothing.
In the end, this is an easy-to-read story, but it straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction – making this either boring fiction or poorly researched non-fiction depending on which side of the line you choose.