I had already decided to read American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road this year before I saw the Bingo board, and the minute I saw the Money! square I knew this book had to be the book I read for it. The instructions for the square are rather straightforward: A fiction or non-fiction book about money, acquiring money legally or illegally, or following the money. American Kingpin is a narrative non-fiction recounting of how one man started a website to trade in illegal goods, how his empire grew exponentially into a billion dollar business, the employees he hired, and the government agents who worked to trace the buyers, sellers, website employees, bitcoins, and finally the man behind it all who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts.
No, not this one.
I remember reading the 2011 Wired article about the Silk Road and its place at the forefront of the anonymous, untraceable world of buying and selling drugs on the internet. What I didn’t know is how is all came crashing down just over two years later. For nearly three years one man’s dream of a libertarian oasis (yuck) where the government couldn’t decide for you what was or wasn’t legal to ingest grew into a behemoth of a sales place that specialized in the things you couldn’t find anywhere else. The problem was that dogged investigators found a way to trace what was thought to be untraceable (oh how little mistakes along the way will catch up with you) and unmask the anonymous. They also managed to be shit at their jobs along the way and several of them committed crimes just because they could.
The thing I found most fascinating about this story was the tracing of one relatively small idea (in this case the argument for the legalization of narcotics leading to the idea of providing a place to demonstrate how the open market would work in order to force the government’s hand) can quickly grow into a monster when the person committed to the idea goes a bit megalomaniacal. I’ve seen comparisons between this story and that encapsulated in Bad Blood and as a study of white privilege run amok that tracks but what this story has which that one doesn’t is the interior view. The reader of American Kingpin is given access to the thought processes of the mastermind from documents that he wrote only for himself. Cue Stringer Bell.
Due to the contents of the book I don’t know that I would recommend it for everyone, the discussions of what was sold on the Silk Road don’t hold back. But this is a highly readable book unpacking a complex crime committed by a bunch of assholes and the complexities of hunting for the perpetrators particularly when law enforcement is busy pissing on each other’s shoes instead of working together. The author, Nick Bilton, writes in a perfectly serviceable manner but it isn’t the heights of great craft. This is a book meant to be consumed – its short chapters feeling more like social media posts at times – and not necessarily thought too deeply about. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t things to unpack, and thoughts to be had. My biggest one was usually “why aren’t these assholes in countries without extradition?”
While I’m using this for the Money! square, it is also a great contender for Cannonballer Says with reviews from ASKReviews, Emmalita, and Jake all of which I read before putting this book on my to read list.
Bingo Square: Money!