Red Sparrow

My wife and I went to a Minnesota Twins game with Clark Griffith and his wife a few weeks ago. Clark is a fun guy to watch a baseball game with; his family owned the Washington Senators and the Twins for a long time and he is an expert observer, albeit awfully objective for a home-town fan like me. Anyway, Clark and I were chatting during the game, and Clark asked whether I had read a book called Red Sparrow. I had not, nor was I familiar with it. Clark said it was the best spy novel he had ever read. The author, Jason Matthews, is a veteran of the CIA, and the book’s spy craft is said to be authentic.

So I bought the book and read it. It’s really good. There are two principal protagonists, and during the first part of the book their stories are told in alternating fashion. Nate Nash is a young CIA agent in Moscow; the book opens when he is almost caught by an SVR surveillance team while he is meeting with the agency’s prime agent, an SVR mole. Dominika Egorova, the niece of a top-ranking SVR official, is prevailed upon by him to work for SVR, and is sent to “sparrow school.” The two stories intersect with consequences both predictable and unpredictable a third of the way or so into the book.


The action takes place in Moscow, Helsinki, Washington, Rome and Athens, with a final scene in a Baltic country. I found the book riveting. The characters are great and the plot is gritty, complicated but comprehensible. In one way, Red Sparrow is quirky. In every chapter, the characters eat something, or perhaps just pass by a restaurant and smell something cooking. But food always figures, however unobtrusively. Then, at the end of every chapter, there is a recipe for some food that was mentioned during the chapter. I was never able to detect any particular rationale for this.

The author, Jason Matthews, is often compared with John Le Carre. I would say that Le Carre is a bit more literary, although the writing in Red Sparrow is of a high order. On the other hand, Matthews does not suffer from Le Carre’s occasional moral myopia.

In any event, I highly recommend Red Sparrow. It came out just a year or two ago, but there is already a sequel called Palace of Treason. Reportedly, a film version of Red Sparrow is in the works. I think you will enjoy the book.