Book review: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

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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 – unlike the British tradition, that takes in John Buchan, Ian Fleming, the undisputed master of the genre John le Carré, and former MI5 director Stella Rimington.

Until now, that is. Jason Matthews is a 33-year veteran of the CIA who has “served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national-security intelligence”. Lord knows how he got his manuscript past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut.

The novel pits an ambitious, hot-headed rookie spook, Nathaniel Nash, against a gorgeous Russian intelligence officer named Dominika Egorova. The plot 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 characterisation.

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.

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. These are minor faults, however. Although Matthews may have a rose-tinted view of the CIA, he is terrifically good on the turf wars and enervating bureaucracy of espionage. And there are several digs at the FBI – including an operation in Finland botched by the excitable feds – which his former colleagues will doubtless cheer to the rafters.

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