Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Red Sparrow, by Jason Matthews

Scribner, 2013
429 pp


Just as an aside, summer reading is so liberating!

Red Sparrow is kind of like those old Cold War spy novels I used to devour.  I rarely read current spy novels -- with only a few exceptions, American spy fiction these days is all about al-Qaeda, some splinter terrorist groups, Navy SEALS, or Army special ops type stuff, etc -- none of which I really want to read.   So, when I heard about Red Sparrow, I bought it in a hurry, because once again, the espionage action heats up between the US and Russia.  While the Cold War era may officially be over, one of the main ideas that runs through this book is that while Russia's system of government may have changed on the outside, underneath the facade the same old apparatus is still in place.  Considering that the author put in 33 years with the CIA, he obviously knows what he's talking about.  There's a really good story here, and for the most part I had fun reading this novel, but it has its frustrating moments. 

Nathaniel (Nate) Nash is a CIA field agent who for some time has been in charge of handling an important Russian department chief, code name MARBLE.  MARBLE is a terrific asset: he's a mole who for personal reasons, decided to get back at the then Soviet government and began passing Langley some "incalculably valuable intelligence," none the least of which are the names of Americans who were spying for the Russians.  In Russia, Nate's job is to pick up intelligence from MARBLE; he is also in charge of his safety before, during and after their meetings.  After one such meeting, Nate's cover is blown -- and somehow the Russians figure out that he is in charge of the mole. They don't know who MARBLE is, but they decide to send in a secret weapon to take care of Nate. Their asset comes in the form of Domenika, a promising up and comer in the ballet until an accident leaves her unable to dance, who is then recruited by her uncle -- ultimately becoming a "sparrow," the name for agents skilled in the arts of eliciting secrets from high-level targets through sex.

There is  a good story in Red Sparrow, complete with amazing spycraft details, turf wars between agencies, creepy Russian characters,  and a beautiful woman (the "red sparrow" of the title). The author succeeds in developing an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, which is one of the best things about this book, along with  several intense moments where things could go one way or the other, where what's going to happen next is up in the air.  If you're a fanatic spy novel reader, you'll also notice a nod to Le Carre that's unmistakeable. Characterwise, the Russian baddies are perhaps a little stereotyped, and for me, using Putin in here as a character didn't work so well.  The portrayal of the deep cover character SWAN is a little over the top, but otherwise, the characters are drawn well and credible, especially that of MARBLE -- probably the best character portrayal in the entire novel. When Matthews writes about the CIA and spycraft in general, he's at the top of his game, although sometimes the inner monologues and dialogue tend to get a little flaky.  What really bothered me the most, leaving me wondering at the outset if I should bail,  was that it seems like every time the action was heating up toward the end of the chapter, the author inserts a recipe,  which sort of kills the suspense that's been building. I seriously couldn't help but think of all of those cozy mysteries where the author sticks in recipes and I just didn't see the point here -- for me, it was a letdown.  While the author notes in an online interview that he felt "a serious spy novel with recipes at the end of each chapter would be different and provocative," and that "The recipes are elliptical and abbreviated. They're more like clues than formal recipes," they seriously interrupted the reading flow to the point of frustration. They're also hard to gloss over or ignore (although I did end up doing just that) because  they're set apart in a box that reminiscent of an index/recipe card, so ignoring them is a little tough -- at least at first. 
To be really honest, the blurb on the back that says that this book should "take its place alongside leCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" led me to believe that something absolutely stunning was to be found here,  but I think the blurber (Doug Stanton) was a little overambitious in his praise.  Considering that this is Matthews' first novel, it was for the most part, very well done and I wouldn't hesitate at all to recommend it to other readers of spy fiction, keeping in mind my comments above.  I'm happy I stuck with it, because as it turns out, it's an  entertaining novel, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for the author's next book. 

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