If you were going to create the proto-type writer of espionage thrillers you would want someone with experience in the art of spy craft. Someone who had engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, who recruited operatives in the Soviet Union, Middle East, and East Asia. You would want a person who had been a CIA Station Chief, managed covert operations, and worked with American allies in counter terrorism over a career that spanned thirty three years. A person with this type of background who was also a proficient writer would be heaven sent for espionage novel aficionados. It is our good fortune to have such a person in Jason Matthews, whose first novel, RED SPARROW fits all the criteria of a superb thriller that keeps the reader fully engaged from cover to cover.
The story line in Matthews’ novel centers on a Russian spy master who is the Chief of the America’s Department in the SVR, or clandestine service. This individual, code named MARBLE has been in the employ of the CIA for over fourteen years and is indispensable for American national security. His handler, a young agent, Nathaniel Nash is forced to leave Moscow because of a bumbling CIA Chief of Station and winds up in Helsinki where the story unfolds as a “red sparrow,” a Russian trained agent in the sexual arts, as well as intelligence, is assigned to develop a relationship with Nash in order to learn the identity of MARBLE. From this point on the plot revolves around the relationship between Nash and Dominika, the “red sparrow.” Further it is intertwined with Russian attempts to uncover the mole in their intelligence service that is also complicated by a sociopathic and self-absorbed American senator who is Vice Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who happens to be working for Moscow. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is Matthews’ rendition of how Nash and Dominika try and recruit each other by applying their American and Russian training. The author focuses on their belief system and doubts, and candidly explains how they affect the operational assignments. Their relationship will form a major component of the plot, but it is only part of a larger more complex web that the author creates.
The dialogue between characters provides a wonderful vehicle for Matthews to present his own biases that date back to his intelligence career. The infighting and lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA is apparent and will lead to a botched scenario that comes very close to ruining a very promising CIA operation. Not to be outdone, within the Russian intelligence apparatus we witness a great deal of careerism by important characters and the conflict between the old Cold War KGB methodology and the more modern technocratic approach that the SVR tries to employ. Matthews is not very objective when it comes to the CIA, but to his credit he does an exceptional job discussing the “turf wars” that exist in the bureaucratic structure of intelligence. He also weaves dead drops, honey traps, trunk escapes, surveillance tactics, and a myriad of other scenarios that one would expect in a spy novel with this type of storyline.
What separates Matthews from other practitioners of the espionage genre is an exceptional ear for dialogue and his quick wit. He is able to develop an interesting array of characters from American Chiefs of Station of varying abilities, to a former KGB executioner who honed his skills in Afghanistan now carrying out his craft for the SVR, to Russian bureaucrats who want to please Vladimir Putin, who also makes a few guest appearances. In addition, Matthews integrates many retired agents in their seventies and eighties to conduct their tradecraft as they blend in so easily into the background to the point that Russian operatives have no idea that they have been made. If you are a fan of Charles Cummings, Olin Steinhauer, Tom Rob Smith, Robert Littell, or Len Deighton you should enjoy RED SPARROW. For a first novel, Matthews has done a wonderful job and has peaked my curiosity as the ending of the book leaves the reader longing for the story to continue. Thankfully, his second effort, PALACE OF TREASON was published last week