My review of John Pansini’s true Cold War spy story (5 stars)

This is an addictive and fascinating true story. Pansini, a roofman and computer information retrieval expert, gets himself intertwined in a secret 1980s Cold War showdown between Russian spy Mikhail Katkov and the FBI. Katkov calls Pansini in response to his fledgling business’ computer search ad in the New York Times in 1983, and thus begins a four-year relationship between Pansini and the UN diplomat who is doubling as a GRU agent for the Russian military.
Katkov meets Pansini fairly regularly at his run-down apartment in Washington Heights, N.Y., and pays him to retrieve “interesting” but unclassified information over the pre-Internet digital dirt roads. Pansini contacts the FBI early in this process and becomes a valuable informant, meeting agents in diners and hiding tape recorders in his apartment. Pansini has embedded authentic audio files of these conversations with both Katkov and the FBI agents in the body of the story. These enhancements — put together with Pansini’s blunt, riveting and often humorous account of what it was like to go from average Joe to espionage middleman — make for a gripping listen/read.
Pansini does a great job of bringing out the humanity in everyone he deals with, especially Katkov, a bear of a man who becomes Pansini’s friend even as he is unknowingly being led toward his inevitable downfall in December, 1987. The emotional strain on Pansini as he goes through this self-inflicted four-year ordeal is real and well-told in “Roofman: Nail-banger, Librarian & Spy.” He even confides his mission for the FBI to his ex-girlfriend at one point. He thought it might impress her as they considered rekindling their relationship. Instead, it scares her off.
And all of this for what?
One of the FBI agents helped sum it up: “Both sides can blow each other up ten times over. What we have here is simply one economy (Russia) desperately trying to catch up with the other (USA). It all boils down to building a better washing machine.”
“You mean I’m risking my ass so some Russian housewife can get her clothes 50 percent brighter?” Pansini asked.
The FBI agent nodded.
I highly recommend “ROOFMAN: Nail-banger, Librarian & Spy.” It’s totally unique, interesting and entertaining, and I think Pansini proves his writing talent is on par with his amazing ability to fool Russian spies.


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