I read a tweet announcing the author’s death a couple of weeks ago and apart from feeling sad as I always do at any author’s demise, I had to admit I’d not heard of Jason Matthews or his novels, but immediately I ordered the first, Red Sparrow, initially published in the U.S. in 1997, if I’m not mistaken, and several years later in the UK.
It’s probably the best spy thriller I’ve ever read. At least, it’s among the very best – it’s up there with Martin Cruz Smith, Geoffrey Household, Eric Ambler, Adam Hall, and the early le Carre novels, of which more later. What they don’t have, though, and which Mr Matthews has in spades, is the pitiless, relentless and authentic nature of the spying game.
The author spent his career – 33 years of it – with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, and it shows. The first chapter, demonstrating the extraordinary craft and danger of tradecraft on Moscow streets, is incomparably the best description of SDR – surveillance route detection – I’ve ever read – aside from the detailed non-fiction tale so very well researched by David E. Hoffman in The Billion Dollar Spy, a remarkable account of the Soviet walk-in, Adolf Tolkachev, which was published many years later.
Red Sparrow is hugely entertaining, managing to combine a well-drawn, half-dozen main characters with twists and turns that could only have been provided by someone familiar with the nature of espionage. I read the 547 pages all but non-stop. It’s disconcerting to read a spy thriller so much better than ones own efforts!
Unlike le Carre, Mr Matthews was seemingly content with the style known as commercial realism of which Le Carre was once the master. He doesn’t try to elevate it through self-indulgent over-writing to attain the heights of ‘literature’, something which in my view spoiled Le Carre’s output as he became increasingly famous.
Jason Matthews doesn’t appear to bother with reputation or legacy. He tells a damn fine story – inventive, addictive, sometimes funny, truly gripping to the last paragraph, even if it does spill over on occasion into melodrama. I’ve just ordered more of his books.