“Red Sparrow” Jason Matthews (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Red Sparrow Jason Matthews Book Cover

In Moscow, Dominika Egorov suffers a ballet career-ending injury and her uncle recruits her into the Russian secret service, dangling a promise that she’ll become an agent. Her trainers nickname her mushka which translates as beauty spot but is also a colloquialism for the front sight of a gun. Despite her obvious intelligence, ability and operative success, her uncle sends her to Sparrow School, where female operatives are schooled in the art of seduction, instead. He needs to impress superiors who have become aware of a high-level mole in the service but so far have been unsuccessful in uncovering him. Humiliated, Dominika manipulates him into sending her to Helsinki with the target of obtaining the name of the mole from a CIA agent they suspect is handling him.

Meanwhile the Russians also have a high level mole that the CIA is also aware of and is trying to uncover, so far without success. However, the mole’s Russian handler is becoming nervous as the mole’s behaviour is becoming more reckless and Dominika’s uncle isn’t above removing a problem by eliminating the person he thinks is responsible for it. Finding the mole is complicated by the usual frictions between the CIA and FBI.

The CIA agent handling their mole, codenamed MARBLE, in Russia is Nate Nash. Initially he was working in Moscow. However, a jumpy superior with no field experience gets Nate diverted to Helsinki where he continues to handle MARBLE as and when the mole obtains clearance to attend trade fairs and events. When Dominika is posted to Helsinki, her cover story is that she’s an administrative assistant and doesn’t see anything of value, the CIA discover who her uncle is and instruct Nate to recruit her as a double agent.

As the nets tighten around the moles, MARBLE knows his time is limited and thinks about succession. If he’s caught, who is best placed to ensure the CIA still get their information? He too becomes very interested in Dominika Egorov. He knows she’s more capable than her uncle credits her and begins to put a plan in place. But can he recruit her before the net closes on him? An incident in Athens throws a spanner in the works and Dominika is left with less than 48 hours to decide whether to defect or return to her homeland where she may or may not continue to be a double agent.

Comparisons with John le Carré are inevitable but justified. Jason Matthews is a retired CIA operative who resists the temptation to make the Americans the sole good guys. The CIA do lose battles, but keep the long-term strategy in place. He also avoids stereotypes while allowing characters to display characteristics appropriate to their nationality, such as Dominika’s dour humour and Nate’s affability. “Red Sparrow” is packed with spy tradecraft details but these don’t slow the pace. Although it’s not a book a reader would want to rush though but rather one to savour the details and flavours.

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