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Who Is Spying On Whom?

Who Is Spying On Whom?

Who Is Spying On Whom?

By Bob Gelms

Jason Mathews has joined a very exclusive club of former real-live-in-the-flesh-honest-to-God spies who have come to write about espionage as fiction just like John le Carre, Ian Fleming and Graham Greene, to name a few you might have heard of. Mathews is an ex CIA spy of some 33 years and you can tell he’s experienced in real live spy craft just by reading a few pages of his first novel, Red Sparrow. I became totally convinced while reading the novel that real spies acted just like Mr. Mathews’ characters in the book. He’s very, very good.

The book tells the story of the hauntingly beautiful Dominika Egorova. She starts out as the prima ballerina in a Russian dance company. Owing to an incident involving a jealous rival in the company, Dominika can no longer dance and she is set adrift until her beloved father passes away. It is then that her somewhat wicked uncle gets her involved with the Russian clandestine service. She is eventually enrolled in a school that teaches beautiful girls how to seduce vulnerable spies into becoming double agents for the Russians. The girls who graduate from this school are called Red Sparrows. The training is quite explicit.


Since there is a Russian high up on the food chain who is spying for the Americans, Dominika is sent to Helsinki to seduce an American spy named Nathaniel Nash to see if she can find out who the double agent is. Nash is the double agent’s case officer. Not to be outdone, the Russians have a double agent high up on the political food chain in America spying for them. You almost need a scorecard to keep track on who is spying for whom.

The plot becomes very involved but Mr. Mathews keeps the reader informed and abreast of the situation so it’s not hard to follow what’s happening. The book is filled with tradecraft, as they call it in the spy biz, and there were a few things that surprised me. The spy agencies on both sides eventually identify the spies who are working against them.

There is an unwritten understanding that death will not be visited upon the opposition. But the spies still have to go to unbelievable lengths to lose the people following them. This can take up to 10 hours and is especially exhausting and exasperating when they often only get a few fleeting minutes with their contact. The spies on both sides are unusually good at their jobs. It is very much like a three-dimensional game of chess being played in the dark.

I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be a spy but it sure is a lot of fun reading about them. You move to counter a move you think is three moves down the line happening in another part of the world. These spies need special brains to hold all the subplots apart in their minds. It’s thrilling.

Dominika, in addition to being very beautiful, is exceptionally smart and good at reading people. She has a leg up on this facility of hers because she has synesthesia, a real neurological condition that manifests itself in a variety of ways almost always involving colors. She can see the color of the aura surrounding everyone around her. Different colors mean different things and she uses this ability to great effect. Even to the point of saving her life. She also has, and I’m struggling with how to put this without revealing too much, a physically violent temper. When she gets angry sometimes people get hurt…a lot!

Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia as president or prime minister for the last 16 years. It would seem he has a stranglehold, almost literally, on the office for as long as he wants it. Red Sparrow seems to indicate that modern Russia is not much of a communist state. It has, in fact, more in common with the czars in Russia’s past than with Lenin or Stalin. It is a modern version of an old fashion oligarchy with the rich ruling as they see fit and the Russian mobsters acting as their enforcement arm. It is in this milieu that the novel lives and breathes.

Red Sparrow is the first installment of a series featuring the exploits of Dominika Egorova and Nate Nash. If you like novels of espionage don’t miss this one. It is a must read. The second installment, Palace of Treason, is a humdinger. I’ll write about that one in the next issue. Dasvidaniya!