According to the Simon & Schuster website for Red Sparrow,
Jason Matthews is a retired officer in CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now the National Clandestine Service. Over a thirty-three-year career he served in multiple overseas locations and engaged in clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied area operations. Matthews conducted operations against Soviet-East European, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean targets and, as Chief in various CIA Stations, managed covert action projects against the Weapons of Mass Destruction programs of the world’s Rogue States and collaborated with foreign liaison partners in counter terrorism operations.Charles Cumming wrote, in his review of Red Sparrow for the New York Times:
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."Lord knows how he got the manuscript of 'Red Sparrow' past the redacting committee at Langley." You don't need to turn to the Lord, Mr. Cummings, I can give you a clue. The CIA is the best, the most powerful producer of propaganda that the world has ever known. Get it through the redacting committee? It reads to me like they wrote it.
Red Sparrow: A Novel
By Jason Matthews
Publishers: Scribner/Simon & Schuster
Hardcover: $26.00, Kindle edition: $11.04, Audiobook CD: $49.99, Audible w/Kindle purchase: $12.99
Hardcover release, June 2013;
But we can use English instead.
MARBLE is an honorable Russian whose career with the SVR has spanned decades, going back to the days when it was the KGB. Fourteen years earlier his Soviet bosses refused to allow his wife to seek medical care from the United States. As a result, she died of a misdiagnosed cancer and he decided that the USSR was rotten to the core and so started to feed secrets to the CIA. His control in Moscow is young agent er, CIA case officer, Nathaniel (Nate) Nash. A close call with the SVR led to Nate's reassignment to Helsinki.
Meanwhile, Dominika Egorova has been recruited into the SVR by her uncle, Ivan Egorova, its Deputy Director, after her career in ballet is ended by an injury. She is sent to State School Four which is where men and women are trained in the art of using sex in espionage. Men are Ravens and women are Sparrows. After training and a successful seduction operation (not a technical term), she is sent to Helsinki to get close to Nate to learn the identity of his mole.
Nate is told to develop and to attempt to turn Dominika while she is working to recruit him as a source. And the game is on. One agent trying to seduce the other who is doing the same. The plot thickens with the introduction of an American, code named SWAN, who is providing information to the Russians in DC. The tale is one of crosses and double crosses with some sex and violence thrown in that should keep most readers closely engaged.
But I had a couple of problems with this book.
Every chapter ends with a recipe. At first it was cute and a rather nice look at how local cuisine is put together. But there are 42 chapters in this book. Do you have any idea how tedious and then how irritating it can be to have the action stop dead while a poorly written recipe is introduced? There are no measurements, temperatures or times so you can't very well prepare the recipes and they serve only to slow down the action and distract the reader from the plot. It is even worse when you are listening to the book as the recipes can take up to 30 seconds to read, just like commercials. And just like commercials, I was fast forwarding through them, so if there were any hidden clues I completely missed them.
But a much greater problem, for me, was the shallow good guy, bad guy framing of this story. MARBLE, although a traitor who sold state secrets for money and a retirement package that included relocation to the United States, was a good guy because his wife died and he was selling the secrets to the CIA. SWAN, on the other hand was a sociopathic slut because she a) slept with whoever she wanted to and b) was a Senator from the blue state of California (who just happened to sit on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence), who chose to sell state secrets to the Russians. Oh, and she is a drunk. Of course.
Really. No ambiguity, no shades of grey, only cartoon characters defined by their relationship to the CIA. The FBI are kind of bad guys because they insist on acting within the confines of the United States legal system and that means that sometimes suspects get away and operations fail. And besides, just like politicians and local law enforcement officers, they leak information to the press. And we certainly can't have the press learn about what the government is doing. They might tell the public, and then where would we be?
I am not even going to discuss the misogyny.
In this novel of the CIA, there is no mention of extraordinary rendition, no talk of enhanced interrogation, except that done by the bad guys, i.e., the Russians, in the basement of a cold dank prison (where else?). There is no discussion of the dirty wars or the special operations run by the National Clandestine Service. Of the seven murders that were committed in this novel, only one was done by a CIA operative, and that one was only because the agent was forced to defend himself. And he never intended the victim to die, only to stop beating him up. Sure.
This is a very smoothly written fairy tale to make Americans once more proud of the CIA. To forget the sins, to look forward instead of backwards. But do let us retreat to the days of the Cold War when the enemy hit a table with his shoe instead of aiming it at an American President. USA! USA! Spells bestseller to me and I expect this one to shoot up the lists. It has garnered rave reviews from every major publication. That does not mean that this is not propaganda, specifically crafted to make us believe our government spy agency is manned by saints who could never, ever do anything wrong or even morally ambiguous.
If we put aside the politics, which I am usually able to do fairly well, this is a decent read. The spelling is correct and most of the grammar is acceptable. The plot is not terrible. If you liked Ian Fleming's James Bond, you will might enjoy this as a spy thriller.
But do not believe the reviewers who compare Jason Matthews to John le Carré. Matthews writes about good guys vs bad guys, superheroes versus villains, while le Carré, also an experienced intelligence officer, writes about what the battle does to the combatants.
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