Scribner, $26.99, 434 pages, ISBN 978-1-4767-0612-2
Move over John LeCarre and Ian Fleming. Take a seat Graham Green, John Gardner and Vince Flynn . . . there’s a new spy novel sheriff in town and he’s packing plenty of talent, byzantine plotting and exquisite details based on thirty-three years of experience collecting clandestine intelligence in “denied-access” areas of the world with the CIA.
Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews is the real deal. Espionage with a reawakening and belligerent Russia is at the heart of this great first novel by an ex-CIA case officer who’s been there and done it all. Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, is determined to regain it’s status as a world superpower and be an equal with the US and an emerging China. As one of the Russian characters remarks, ‘The cold War never ended,’ at least from a Russian point of view.
The novel is about a hunt for a Russian mole. A mole is a person who is burrowed into an enemy organization and is supplying information to that organization’s adversaries. In this case, a high ranking member of the Russian spy organization known as the SVR, which replaced the KGB from the Cold War, is giving secret information about Russian military and spy efforts to a young American CIA case officer named Nathaniel Nash. Known only by the code name MARBLE, the information is excellent, super secret and could have only come from a highly placed SVR official. It’s been going on for more than a decade. Determined to catch the smart, crafty and careful mole, the Deputy Director of the SVR forces his niece into “Sparrow School,” where she is trained, against her will, in the arts of seduction. She’s the bait in a ‘Honey Trap.’ Her uncle the Deputy Director intends to further his career by using his niece as a courtesan, hoping to expose the identity of MARBLE through a sexual liaison with the young CIA officer.
The novel is chock-full of suspense, double-crosses, treachery, brutality, backstabbing and spy craft. It’s as close to the action as one can get without being in the actual theater of operations and under fire. Reading Red Sparrow is a bit like having great sex: it starts out kind of slow and languid, but builds in intensity with every page until you couldn’t stop reading, even if the whole damn house was falling down around you! Jason Matthews has poured his guts into this first novel and it’s a winner. I’ll be reading all of his subsequent works because he writes the kind of novels that you just don’t want to end. WOW! Jason Matthews is going to become one of the most respected and revered writers working in the spy thriller genre today if he keeps this up.