From Russia With Love
By Miriam R. Kramer
From the Vault, September 2015: These novels remain compelling and evergreen. I also recommend The Kremlin’s Candidate, which was published as the last in this trilogy after I wrote this review.
As one who lived in Russia twice since the fall of the Soviet Union and visited the American Embassy in Moscow several years ago as part of a diplomatic delegation, I consider them among the best Russia-set spy thrillers I have read in recent years. What would Jason Matthews, Graham Greene, or someone as gloomily introspective as John Le Carré write about gathering intelligence during Russia’s war on Ukraine? May Vladimir Putin end his reign and the Ukrainian people resoundingly repel his aggression.
Ripped from the heart of Mother Russia, Jason Matthews’s spy novels Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason are two very enjoyable ways to while away this month. Red Sparrow won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American in 2014. Its successor is a worthy follow-up, packed as completely with inventive plots, the type of burned-on-the-retina characters that make thrillers actual page-turners, and a dizzying variety of locales that would satisfy even Jason Bourne’s lust for travel.
The characters dancing first in Red Sparrow are the SVR operations officer, Corporal Dominika Egorova, and CIA case officer Nathaniel Nash. Egorova, a once-promising prima ballerina and pure-blooded Russian patriot, sidelined by a foot injury, is introduced to the world of Russian spycraft by her sleazy uncle, First Deputy of the Foreign Intelligence Service Ivan Egorov. He uses her beauty to sideline one of Vladimir Putin’s rival oligarchs during an evening à deux in the oligarch’s apartment on Moscow’s Arbat.
After her training in traditional operations, her uncle sends her to Sparrow School, a degrading Soviet-style institution where she must learn to act the courtesan professionally, using sex to compromise foreign operatives with access to intelligence. Egorova, an artistic synesthete who sees objects, music, dance, and people’s personalities in waves of color, makes great progress in understanding their motives with the aid of this gift, unknown to her colleagues. Gradually the sharp-witted operations officer grows disgusted with the bureaucracy, brutality, and chauvinism she encounters on her way to becoming an officer. She longs to exhibit her independence and defend Russia, but her superiors make it impossible.
Her counterpart, Nate Nash, has other points to prove. One of the scions of a staid Southern family with his father heading an old Richmond law firm, he breaks free of tradition to study Russian. While his family doubts that he will stay in the service, he makes his way through school and lands a plum assignment in Moscow, where he ends up running an extremely high-placed mole code-named MARBLE. When Nash is ejected from Russia by an incompetent superior and sent to run his Russian mole from Finland’s CIA station, he sets off on a collision course with Egorova, whose uncle sends her to spy on him. Their meeting seems to set the course for a potential series of spy novels, of which Palace of Treason may only be the second.
The novels pick up one after another as each service hunts frenetically for high-placed moles in their midst, coming close to finding them as plots spiral and take shortcuts down dark alleys. Characters take on new roles as the plots progress. Matthews packs his writings with an alluringly over-the-top cast of characters. On the Russian side, they include everyone from a Lubyanka-era torturer with Kremlin ties slithering his way through the 2010s, hired assassins with equally dubious pasts in Afghanistan, honorable generals, and the Soviet-Man toadies surrounding President Vladimir Putin himself at a St. Petersburg retreat.
The Americans include fresh-faced recruits in training, screw-ups who fail upwards to important positions where they can do the most damage, and funny, capable veterans and Chiefs of Station who have served in European capitals and every hardship post from Managua to N’Djamena. Cowboy heroes abound on the American side, but that is as it should be in American spy fiction.
These works prove their strength with plots that move incessantly, bringing in outside players such as the Iranians, who are searching for ways to improve their nuclear program unbeknownst to the Americans. In the meantime, the old Cold War partners spar, thrust, and occasionally expel each other’s diplomats. I much prefer my spy thrillers action-oriented as well as atmospheric, unless they have literary reason to be otherwise, and Jason Matthews has delivered well-written suspense with plausible drama. He includes a recipe for a dish mentioned at the end of every chapter in both books, adding a fun touch for foodies.
For armchair travelers, these works will help you check in to a great destination. From Moscow to Athens to Helsinki to Paris to Vienna, operations hopscotch across Europe. Readers living in and around Washington, DC will have great fun following the players on the DC-area stage, from Georgetown to Southern Maryland to the George Washington Parkway, not to mention the lovely Meridian Hill Park in DC, site of a huge plot development with the FBI and CIA in Palace of Treason.
As one who has focused on Russian studies over time, I appreciate Matthews’ understanding of certain types of Russian mentalities that never seem to fade away. His understanding of current geopolitics and how Russia fits into that picture, in particularly regarding the United States of America, is spot-on.
Unfortunately, it seems that the more things change in Russia, the more they stay the same. Therefore, Matthews’s books fulfill one of my requirements: accuracy. Not only are they entertaining, but they also give someone new to the subject a broad overview of Vladimir Putin’s goals and paranoia as the head of the Russian leadership, and accurately show how he operates. As Egorova notes when listening to one of her classmates, “Interesting. The Cold War never ended.” Indeed it has not.