s the Cold War wound down, espionage writers began retiring their Soviet villains in favor of Middle Eastern terrorists. When they did feature the Soviet Union, it was often to showcase their cosmopolitan enlightenment; John Le Carre, for example, made a fortune by peddling the judgement that the West was the moral equivalent of Russia and the Cold War a waste of time, since the Soviets were “technologically backward,” while demonizing the West by claiming that CIA always knew about our technological superiority, but doctored the facts to validate their own power. But owing to the rise of Vladimir Putin—the former KGB spook turned “iron leader”—and Russia's supposed meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia—now ruled by oligarchs, mafia figures, and those who masochistically miss the days of Stalin—is once again a serviceable villain for thriller writers.
In his Red Sparrow trilogy, Jason Matthews portrays Putin in a way that will please neither Donald Trump nor George W. Bush, who once reported (after a one-on-one truck ride with Putin on his Texas ponderosa) that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a “good man.” In the trilogy’s final novel, The Kremlin’s Candidate, Putin remains as chilling, paranoid, and risk-taking as Stalin. Matthews describes Putin in terms that could easily fit his Soviet predecessor: he exhibits “blue-eyed X-ray stares” and reeks of “back-alley reprisals.” Matthews’s Putin is a nutcase who shares Stalin’s obsession with projecting a macho image, particularly toward Americans. Only Stalin’s moustache and the gun on his desk are missing.
To further cement the comparison, Matthews describes Russian intelligence as fearful of Putin as “the NKVD was of Stalin’s rages in the 1930s.” And Putin’s torture and execution chambers—his “cellars”—reserved for “enemies against the state” have little changed from Stalin’s time, down to the pine wall designed to catch ricocheting bullets and the drains in the sloping, brown-stained cement floor, placed to sluice away the fluids of executed prisoners. The “cancer” Putin represents has always been the motivating factor for Matthews’s protagonist Dominika Egorova to leak Russian information to the CIA. Her efforts stem from her Russian patriotism; she wants to “cleanse” the country of Putin, his “predatory” inner circle and “the oligarchs, crooks, and thugs” who Putin has unleashed on the citizenry.
The Kremlin’s Candidate is the latest, and according to Matthews, final outing of Egorova. Now in line to head SVR, Russia’s external foreign intelligence service, her role as “DIVA,” the CIA’s “best U.S. clandestine reporting source in their history of Russian operations,” could be blown and land her in Putin’s cellar if his highly-placed Russian mole becomes head of the CIA.
The asset, a geeky U.S. admiral named Aubrey Rowland, had a sexual encounter with Egorova in the latter’s former duty as a Russian secret agent, or “Sparrow” (pithily described by Matthews as “sexpionage”). This monitored tryst is used by a Soviet intelligence official to force Rowland into a “relationship” with his country by threatening to expose her lesbian lifestyle to the “don’t ask don’t tell” American military. But the official also skillfully plays on her daddy issues: much of the fuel for her intelligence work comes from the knowledge that her abusive naval aviator father would “salute” her espionage were he alive. By now, Putin is so paranoid and unhinged that he has authorized a wet-work operation on US soil, designed to knock off the current CIA director and replace him with Rowland.
With her life and CIA role on the line, Egorova and her CIA handler/lover Nate Nash are in a race against time. The Kremlin Candidate, unlike the other books in the trilogy, doesn’t pause for bedroom assignations, and instead is pure chase. It plays into Matthews’ strengths and is the most satisfying of the three. Matthews’s specialty is describing the twists and turns his agents must take in order to escaping surveillance. His agents are constantly vigilant, noticing everyone and everything in order to detect whether they are being followed, and they’re under constant pressure. Even the briefest relaxation can land them in Putin’s torture rooms. Matthews is equally good with fight scenes, providing the reader with insider knowledge of lethal techniques other thriller writers rarely match. It takes considerable skill to effectively describe a fight, and even Le Carre and Ian Fleming fail in this regard (although Fleming, with his descriptions of the karate-chopping Bond, at times comes close). In the real world, agents aren’t trained for the long haul of exchanging punches, but are instructed in moves that kill.
On these and other matters, Matthews (along with Robert Littell) may be the best in the spy genre. He is not the show-off Le Carre is, and doesn’t imbue his characters with overpowered abilities. Matthews’s agents are blue-collar types, in contrast to the usual Groton/Yale graduates who once peopled La Carre’s Agency. And unlike Le Carre, who regarded Britain and America as morally equivalent to Stalin’s Russia, Matthews is not afraid of upholding American democracy against neo-Stalinist Russia.
Nor is he the techno-wonk Tom Clancy was. Clancy often used techno-babble as much to disguise his inability to plot or create realistic characters as to show off his knowledge of armory.
Matthews’s characters are patriotic, but they never approach Clancy’s characters’ chest-thumping jingoism. Clancy occasionally sacrificed the element of surprise for the sake of exhibiting his conservatism through often one-dimensional mouthpieces. Matthews’s characters’ patriotism is unspoken, but is evident in the amount of danger they are willing to endure. But Matthews also shows that much of what motivates agents is the pride they exhibit in their work. Nash is determined to expertly do his job and when he flounders he takes it personally.
When he does provide political commentary, Matthews is usually skewering politicians who have no notion of the ins-and-outs of intelligence work and self-righteously try to gut the Agency of the “dirty tricks” necessary for successful operations. These bureaucrats, obviously liberal and obviously ignorant of the real world, recall Obama’s attempts to hamstring agents by restricting their use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
Moreover, these partisan bureaucrats are destructive to American intelligence gathering capabilities, which in turn exposes the “soft spots” open for Putin’s meddling. In this “politicized and contorted” world, the intelligence service becomes the plaything of politicians eager to have ammo for grandstanding and “gotcha” moments over their political opponents. Once agents lose their value, whatever their expertise, they are “contaminated” and sent packing.
Matthews also criticizes desk-bound CIA officers who are ignorant of the methods required for successful on-the- ground operations. These agents despise Agency desk jockeys whose biggest risk is signing off on the wrong operation. Nate expresses this disgust by calling his martinet station chief a “pussy” who knows nothing about real-life espionage.
The CIA handlers come off better. Although they have the required coldness and skepticism about defectors, they never approach the paranoia of the CIA’s warped and destructive James Jesus Angleton. They are both likeably humane and ice-cold professionals.
Matthews’ thirty-three years as an agent infuse his novels. The Kremlin’s Candidate, like its predecessors in the trilogy, crackles with authenticity. But he is also a skilled writer. One suspects, in fact―as with former Pinkerton detective-turned-author Dashiell Hammett―that Matthews gained these skills from writing concise reports. He communicates clearly the intricacies of the world of spooks. On every required level, The Kremlin’s Candidate is superb: a slam-dunk conclusion to a superlative series.