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.