Jason Matthews, born in 1951, looks and talks a bit like Leon Panetta, who ran the CIA for a while during the Obama Administration. In other words, he doesn’t look like a “Jason Bourne” type spy. He is the author of two very popular spy novels, mentioned in the title of this post. His first novel Red Sparrow was made into a movie this year, (2018). I give it a so-so rating. The second one Palace of Treason is only slightly better.
The novels are of great interest because Matthews updates us on some of the clandestine techniques of both the Russian and American intelligence agencies. As a former spook himself, Matthews writes quite openly about the internal battles within the American Intel world (CIA vs FBI, with DIA, NSA, and NIC all having peculiar minor roles with their characters and quirks.). Matthews is a sharp intellect, and is a competent, if unlyrical writer who obviously has a broad range of non-spy related interests. The novels are filled with many Russian latinized phrases that show Matthews’ command of русский (russkiy).
One recurring feature in the novels, is that at the end of every chapter Matthews has a culinary recipe, usually of some Russian or Middle Eastern dish but sometimes just sandwiches or salads. He started this in Red Sparrow and continued it through his second book, Palace of Treason. That means that every chapter has to have an eating scene, because the recipes reflect the most recent meal consumed in the story. This actually puts Matthews in a narrative box. Eating is important of course, but most novels don’t have a meal stuffed into every chapter. I suppose this is entertaining and informative for some readers, but I find it annoying and think it detracts from the flow of the story.
The main character is Dominika Egorova, the beautiful young niece of the one of the department heads of the Russian SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki or Foreign Intelligence Service). She has powers that rival Wonder Woman's “...Dominika was born a synesthete, with a brain wired to see colored auras around people and thereby read passion, treachery, fear, or deception.” She is a former Prima Ballerina for the Bolshoi, highly connected into the Russian power structure, and who speaks fluent French and English and can practically read other people’s mind. And because she is a graduate of State School Number 4, Sparrow School, or as she calls it “whore school” she is a master of sexual technique and the art of bringing maximum pleasure to her lovers.
Her counterpart is Nate Nash, a son of a Virginia lawyer who turns away from a life of mint juleps and horse country leisure, to serve his country. He is brave, resourceful and speaks Russian. His task in Red Sparrow is to manage the relationship with the Russian Mole, MARBLE, a high official in the Russian Intelligence Service, with access to the highest level of Russian policy, a position similar to that of Bill Haydon in Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy.
Red Sparrow got rave reviews from former CIA officials and the refrain from the mainstream reviewers is that it is an authentic and realistic account of the Spy vs. Spy battles being waged today. Red Sparrows were (usually) women who were trained to use sexual attraction to flip their targets. Both novels are filled with details of “tradecraft”. Honey Traps, (compromising with sex), Rapid burst transmission, (Condensed encrypted radio transmissions) and the Canary Traps (where you leak different secrets to different mole targets to see which info (canary) flies home, thereby identifying the mole) Window dressing, (a cover story for spies to convince the opposition that what they are seeing is genuine, rather than a set-up.) Much of this tradecraft has already been deeply explored by Le Carre.
Matthews writes long books. Both books together are over one thousand pages in soft cover. So he gives his readers their monies worth.
His competition, at least if you read what some reviewers say, is John Le Carre who invented the genre. Tradecraft terms like Mole, Dead drop, brushpast, lamplighters, scalphunters, sleeper agents, all of these phrases and many more were invented by Le Carre. Now everyone, including the spies themselves, use these terms to describe the various facets and specialties of modern spying.
One thing that separates them is that Matthews was 62 when he published his first book, while Le Carre (JLC) was still in his twenties when he began writing fiction. Being a Brit JLC was also a bit more elegant in his storytelling. Matthews gets right to the short strokes like he is composing a cable back to headquarters detailing the state of his case. JLC takes his time and gives space for even his minor characters to blossom.
I think a lot of people who support our INTEL community see Matthews’ novels as a forceful answer to Le Carre. Throughout LeCarre’s work there is an anti-American subtext. Sometimes it was just smug, pointing out the clumsy American over-reliance on gadgets and gizmos and lack of finesse on the human elements of spycraft. Other times it is more pointed, wondering if the American INTELs had a vested interest in maintaining the game and overestimating Russia’s capabilities. Le Carre saw that in order to maintain the military funding the US had to have a big evil boogie man to arm against and so therefore it was in the CIA’s interest to make the threat bigger than it really was.
You get no such doubts from Matthews. His Russians are either evil, (Putin makes an appearance in Palace of Treason) sadistic, or lackey stooges.
Well - except for our super girl Dominika and the American Mole in the Russian infrastructure. Both of them represent all that is good and cultured in Russia. Both of them are traitors to their country, but Matthews paints them as people who have been dehumanized first by the Soviet system, and now by Putin’s. But how helping the Americans win (win what?) is not made clear. With Dominika we do get to see some complexity. She is a killer, and she is good at it. But she loves Nate, (and sometimes hates him) her American spy (they both are assigned to watch the other by their respective agencies). But other than her longing to be with Nate, she is motivated by hatred of her Kremlin masters.
These days, it is hard to put a political label on these books, although the arch American traitor is a woman Democratic Senator from California, so I think it is pretty clear where Matthews probably stands. But with Trump, who is (IMO) partially a creation of the Russian Intel services, many liberals look to the CIA et al as one of the institutional backstops against the creeping fascism that Trump represents. But it is not that simple. If the election of Trump was the ultimate spy coup of modern history then what does it say about our services which allowed it to happen? Doesn’t it indicate that Le Carre is right, that our guys are queer for the gear, but that are clueless as to what is really at stake?
What is at stake in Matthews books? New satellite technology (gear) that the Democratic Senator is selling to the Kremlin. Or (shades of Tom Clancy) submarine schematics. Meanwhile, our democracy got hacked in a big way. This seems to escape Matthews notice, although he seems to promise to address it in his third book in the trilogy The Kremlin's Candidate. We’ll have to wait until it comes out to see. But the summary from Kirkus Reviews doesn’t seem too promising.
And then there is the movie Red Sparrow. Poor Jennifer Lawrence. I felt so sorry for her as she spread her legs in every other scene for men that she hated. It was an inspired performance, but for what? The other cameos by Jeremy Irons (a Russian General), Charlotte Rampling ( the Matron of the Sparrow school) and Mary Louise Parker (who seemed to think it was a sequel to Weeds as she stumbled around as the corrupt American traitor) they all gave a perfect definition of “mailing it in”. In fact, it almost seemed like they were hanging poor Jennifer out to dry, (which is what both the Russians and Americans did in the story.) It was a long, disjointed and boring movie, and I read the book and knew what was happening. I can’t imagine watching otherwise.
Anyway, my final thought is if that if this is the best we can do to “advertise” our Intel agencies, then maybe Trump is right about the CIA. No. No. Oh my gosh, I didn’t really say that, did I? These are not happy times.