Title: Red Sparrow
Author: Jason Matthews
Matthews, Jason (2013). Red Sparrow: A Novel. New York: Scribner
PS3613.A8484 R43 2013
Date Posted: January 3, 2017
Review by Charles Cumming
The undisputed master of spy fiction, John le Carré, worked for British intelligence for several years before the international success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, allowed him to retire from the secret world to become a full-time writer.
Le Carré’s real-life experience as a spy is not unique in the genre, at least in its British incarnation. John Buchan, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and, of course, Ian Fleming all served as intelligence officers in the first half of the 20th century. More recently, a number of spy novels have been written by Stella Rimington, the director of MI5 from 1992 to 1996.
Things are rather different on the American side of the pond. With the exception of Charles McCarry, there hasn’t been a first-rate American spy novelist who claims to have worked as an intelligence officer before turning his hand to fiction.
Until now, that is. Jason Matthews is a 33-year veteran of the C.I.A. who, according to the press release in front of me, “served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national-security intelligence.” Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut.
The novel pits an ambitious, hotheaded rookie spook, Nathaniel Nash, against a gorgeous Russian intelligence officer named Dominika Egorova. The plot, which swings convincingly between Moscow, Helsinki, Athens and Washington, begins with echoes of Fleming’s From Russia With Love— an attractive Soviet “sparrow” is used to compromise a randy Western spy—and ends with an extended homage to the denouement of le Carré’s “Smiley’s People.”
What distinguishes Red Sparrow from so many of its ilk is not merely Matthews’ skill as a writer. He is smart and fluent, with a terrific ear for dialogue and a gift for quick, effective characterization. Here he describes a Russian spy chief:
“He looked to be 50 years old, with a red-veined tetrahedron for a nose. His eyes were dull and watery, his teeth corrugated and stained, and he slouched with the familiar casual authority honed on the razor strop of decades of Soviet officialdom. His tie was askew, his suit was a washed-out brown that recalled low tide at the beach.”
As you might expect, the author also possesses an extraordinarily deep knowledge of his subject. I have rarely encountered a nonfiction title, much less a novel, so rich in what would once have been regarded as classified information. From dead drops to honey traps, trunk escapes to burst transmissions, Matthews offers the reader a primer in 21st-century spying. His former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their tradecraft. The author’s unrelentingly bleak depiction of the post-Soviet espiocracy also rings depressingly true.
This is not to say that Red Sparrow is perfect. I think it was a mistake to give Vladimir Putin a walk-on part, and some of the character names (Korchnoi, Ustinov, Delon) are oddly chosen, given their real-life antecedents. Perhaps in homage to the culinary spymaster Len Deighton, Matthews has chosen to end each chapter, save the last one, with a recipe. The technique is charming at first, but it has the effect of undermining whatever suspense the author has built up in the preceding pages.
These are minor faults, however. Although Matthews may have a rose-tinted view of the C.I.A., he is terrifically good on the turf wars and enervating bureaucracy of espionage. There are several digs at the F.B.I.—including an operation in Finland botched by the excitable feds—which his former colleagues will doubtless cheer to the rafters.
A 33-year career as an intelligence officer would make Matthews, at a conservative estimate, a novelist in his mid-50s. That’s late to be getting into the writing game (although Raymond Chandler did publish The Big Sleep at the age of 51). Red Sparrow sometimes feels like a novel written by a man in a hurry, an impassioned former spook desperate to download everything he knows and feels about Russia and the murky world of spying. Does that mean Red Sparrow is a one-off and that Matthews will now disappear into the shadows? I certainly hope not.
 Charles Cumming, “Spy vs. Spy,” in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times (May 31, 2013). Charles Cumming’s novel, A Foreign Country, is available in paperback. A version of this review appears in print on June 2, 2013, on Page BR51 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Spy vs. Spy.