Jason Matthews has found a formula that is making him one of America’s most readable spy novelists: To animate the James Bond staples of seduction and violence, he has added touches of the meticulous tradecraft he learned in his 33 years as a CIA operations officer. The sex scenes in his books are good, but the surveillance-detection runs are sublime.
“The Kremlin’s Candidate” is Matthews’s latest offering, and it doesn’t disappoint. Although the title reads like the caption crawl below a CNN report on Donald Trump and the Russians, the book wisely doesn’t mimic the preposterous plotlines of real life. Instead, it’s a traditional espionage story of dueling moles within U.S. and Russian intelligence. The Kremlin’s friend in Matthews’s version is only bidding to run the CIA, not the White House.
This is Matthews’s third novel featuring Dominika Egorova, the Russian superspy who began her career as a trained seductress, as described in his superb debut novel, “Red Sparrow.” She’s sort of a Russian Barbie doll on steroids, who can seduce, kickbox and plot geostrategy all at the same time. And if that’s not enough, she’s also a “synesthete,” which means that she can see what people are thinking as colors emanating from them.
Dominika may sound implausible, but through three novels I’ve found her a thoroughly enjoyable character who’s convincing on the page. She’s a female Bond in the sack, but if you’re a spy-novel fan, it’s her skill at SRAC (short-range agent communications) that keeps you reading. It will be interesting to see what Jennifer Lawrence does with Dominika when the movie version of “Red Sparrow” premieres next month.
In “The Kremlin’s Candidate,” as in its two predecessors, Dominika is matched with her CIA handler (and, inevitably, her lover), Nate Nash. He’s a bit of a cartoon character, too, who speaks Russian like a native, fights like a killing machine and is also a really sensitive guy. Matthews knows he’s writing popular fiction, meant to entertain, but his characters are saved from ridiculousness by the fact that they understand the real-life business of espionage as well as Matthews evidently did in his decades as a CIA case officer.
This book feels longer and talkier than the first two, and the plot is more convoluted, bouncing from Moscow and Washington to Greece, New York, Khartoum, Macao and Hong Kong. North Korean and Chinese spies are woven through the story, in addition to Russians and Americans, and there are a few more loops and switchbacks on the roller coaster than a purist might like. But the momentum is sustained, and the reader acquires some awesome Chinese tradecraft as well as some memorably vulgar Australian slang.
Matthews is obviously having fun as he writes. He evokes a CIA run by crusty old WASPS with names like Benford, Gable and Forsyth, interlaced with brown-nosing bureaucrats and cowardly station chiefs. He loves the blue-collar side of the CIA, the techs who crack the locks and plant the bugs. Continuing an amusing conceit he began in his first book, he ends each chapter with the recipe for a dish that a character has eaten in the preceding pages. This culinary tradecraft remains impressive, but it may be a tad overcooked.
Faithful to the case-officer clan, Matthews saves some of his most venomous descriptions for a CIA-hating female member of the Senate Intelligence Committee (“Sen. Feigenbaum”) and her “mealy-worm” staff director. Those references will get some knowing nods at Langley.
What undergirds Matthews’s sometimes fanciful plot and characters is his attention to detail. He knows the Russian slang for “honey trap” and “orgasm.” He uses European bra sizes to describe the undergarments of his heroine, and he explains problems with Russian condoms. He drops the name that GRU operatives use for their headquarters (“the Acquarium”) and Putin’s nickname at the KGB (“the Pale Moth”). In the Macao and Hong Kong scenes, it’s the same thing, with Matthews dispensing Chinese espionage doctrine in Chinese. These foreign phrases are meant to add verisimilitude to his yarn, and generally they do.
Matthews should lighten up on the spurious details, though. There are too many brand names — for suits, shirts, ties, watches, guns, holsters, even fishing rods. At a certain point, these names stop conveying authenticity and read like product placements. Big breasts are a spy-novel convention, too, but I wonder if all three of Nate’s lovers had to be quite so top-heavy.
Matthews’s most interesting challenge is a character named “Vladimir Putin.” We’ll never know if the description of this “fictitious” Russian president’s lovemaking is accurate, thank goodness. But this is a book that convinces us — with a wink — that it gets such details right.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of 10 novels, including “Body of Lies” and, most recently, “The Quantum Spy.”
By Jason Matthews
434 pp. $26.99