Reading Jason Matthews’ spy novel Red Sparrow is like wrapping Le Carré around a dime store romance, a reputable disguise for when you’re embarrassed to be seen with it. Red Sparrow is a thriller for appearances’ sake only (and because CIA men don’t write romance)? A shame – because Matthews has real talent.
Dominika Egorova is a corporal in the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, and a graduate of Sparrow School, a school that teaches its sparrows how to use sex to turn foreign agents on to the treason of whispering their secrets into their lovers’ ears. Dominika’s target is Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA operative handling MARBLE, the man who for more than a decade has been the Agency’s most lucrative Russian intelligence source and Moscow’s most dangerous mole.
Egorova’s professional seduction, of course, gives way to genuine passion.
Matthews himself is a former CIA officer of 33 years whose work encompassed the collection of national security intelligence and agent recruitment in the former Soviet Union, eastern Europe, east Asia and the Middle East. He knows his stuff, and it shows.
But Red Sparrow is more a third-rate romance than a pulse-pounding thriller. Matthews didn’t do his story justice when he placed at the forefront of his novel Dominika and Nate, two heroes whom he cleaved so thin they can’t stand up straight. He did himself a further injustice when he let the two run him under and dictate the story on their terms.
Apart from allowing Dominika the license to become the Mary Sue of bad fanfic (for the unaware I direct you here), the new terms were ones of less work and more play, less action and more…. action: sex.
Spending some 200 pages – half of his novel – on vagaries of no direction, the action of his novel, the thrill, suffers to the point of being only an indefinite fogginess ending in a question mark. “Documents.” “Intelligence.” “Files.” But more often a divergence into Dominika’s bosom and blue eyes. It isn’t until the second half of Sparrow that there’s any kind of story that pursues an aim other than rote description, and when there isn’t a story there also isn’t urgency – a thriller that does not thrill.
What should have been some of his most climactic scenes, purposed to amp the adrenaline, instead cramp up with cringe or the laughter of two-bit comedy that doesn’t even feel like pulp. He interrupts hand-to-hand combat to emphasize a set of lingerie.
Now, an author can have it both ways: Mario Puzo gave his Sonny Corleone a throbbing amount of sexuality and still he wrote a mammoth of a crime novel. Quentin Tarantino’s work is smothered by gore and shows an affection for women in spandex, but this never distracts from his direction. An artist, especially one whose art it is to tell stories, knows how to add and remove all the side pieces without losing sight of the main thing. He can do this because he knows his characters and is in control of them.
With Red Sparrow, we get the impression that Matthews doesn’t know his characters – or that he tried so hard to understand them that, having simplified them to such an inane flatness in his head, he unwittingly did the same on paper. Twenty-something Dominika offs three KGB-trained thugs, though her only background (apart from ballet) is a few months of a routine training course. Marty Gable doesn’t speak anything but idioms until the final act. Putin is a caricature. And pray God the CIA has better hiring initiatives than the one that recruited Nate Nash or we may as well just let the Russkis win.
Moreover, Matthews’ characters don’t show us anything. They don’t show us emotion, intent or motivation; they tell us, and they tell us because Matthews gave himself an out when he made Dominika a synesthete who reads such things by seeing the colored auras of other characters. How handy for a spy. It’s through this and not through a character’s actions or words or any one of the number of methods a good storyteller – or good spy – might use that we know somebody is deceitful or noble; two-timing or honest; bad or good.
Such a crutch degrades his characters, and it degrades Matthews as a writer. He’s showing his readers that even he can’t trust his own creativity to do the work.
And Matthews can do the work, when he wants to. The most detailed and most tension-bound scenes in Red Sparrow, scenes that could go toe-to-toe with those of the best veterans in popular fiction, are those where his two heroes are absent. We don’t need a colorful aura to get it.
Circling closer and closer around the principal silovik – Vanya Egorov, General Korchnoi and Anatoly Golov; and around CI Chief Simon Benford, Red Sparrow spreads its wings for the first time in nearly 300 pages. They’re characters who are integral to the story but til then had been overshadowed by his dominatrix and her little CIA naïf.
Matthews’ talent is in his writing, which in Sparrow is smooth, easy, fluid. It contains surprising little descriptions, like the “poached egg eye” of a Soviet-era killer, and original perspectives, as when Benford offers a “narrative flood that suggested the drive belt of his tongue had slipped the flywheel of his mind.” He can write sentences and organize a novel for wide-spread appeal without dirtying his boots with the muck of mediocrity many of today’s authors churn out via the novel-mill. No, Matthews stands apart in this regard; his writing and rhythm are far above average.
Matthews is the type of author who would do well if given his characters beforehand and told not to mess with them – or if he took a more hard-nosed approach to them and treated his heroes with the same respect he shows his supporting actors. His writing flows, his story is well-researched and he’s got a knack for precision when he chooses to use it. It’s his characters who slander his ability, and Red Sparrow for the most part is a skin-deep romance and a flaccid thriller.
Red Sparrow · Jason Matthews · 2013
Scribner, 2014 · 431 pages, paperback
Red Sparrow is the first book in Matthews’ Red Sparrow trilogy:
Palace of Treason
The Kremlin’s Candidate