NEW YORK — Jason Matthews, an award-winning spy novelist who drew upon his long career in espionage and his admiration for John le Carre among others in crafting his popular “Red Sparrow" thrillers, has died at age 69.
Matthews died Wednesday from Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD), a rare, untreatable neurodegenerative disease, according to his publisher, Scribner.
“How a bestselling, critically-acclaimed spy novelist sprung from the head of a quiet CIA operations officer appeared to be a great mystery,” Colin Harrison, Matthews' editor at Scribner, said in a statement. “But when you learned Jason Matthews spoke six languages, had read widely for decades, was an astute observer of human behavior, and was adept at composing long classified narratives, it all made sense. His books were not only sophisticated masterpieces of plot and spy craft, but investigations into human nature, especially desire in all its forms.”
Matthews worked 33 years in the CIA's highly secretive Operations Directorate before retiring a decade ago and following the path of such authors as le Carre and Charles McCarry in fictionalizing their time in intelligence. “Red Sparrow,” published in 2013, was a neo-Cold War tale that introduced readers to CIA man Nathaniel Nash and to the former Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova, recruited by her uncle as a “sparrow,” trained in the art of “sexpionage - sexual entrapment, carnal black-mail, moral compromise."
As an author, Matthews was an immediate, late-life success. “Red Sparrow” won an Edgar for best debut American thriller and was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Critics praised the book for its detail, insight, plot twists and candid portrait of the more tedious parts of the spy trade, and cited it as a model for how the CIA man's skills in observation can be employed by a fiction writer.
“Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut,” novelist Charles Cumming wrote in The New York Times.
“I have rarely encountered a nonfiction title, much less a novel, so rich in what would once have been regarded as classified information. From dead drops to honey traps, trunk escapes to burst transmissions, Matthews offers the reader a primer in 21st-century spying. His former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their tradecraft.”
Matthews wrote two more “Sparrow” novels, “Palace of Treason" and ”The Kremlin's Candidate," which came out in 2018. The year before, he told The Associated Press that he had an idea for a thriller he once considered highly improbable — until Donald Trump became president.
“The plot line was an American presidential candidate who has a secret that’s so bad it would ensure his or her impeachment, and the only person who would know the secret is Vladimir Putin,” Matthews said.
Nate Nash was his stand-in, but Matthews would call Putin his muse, and joke that every day he would wake up and think, “Thank heavens for Vladimir Putin.” His novels captured a “New Russia,” presided over by Putin the “blue-eyed tsar” and his cronies (siloviki), that has revived the oppression and corruption of the former Soviet Union without even the pretense of being a worker's state.
“These weasels purloined the patrimony of Russia, and spread a blanket of corruption so completely over the land that if you were not a billionaire running the energy monopoly Gazprom out of your pocket, then you were a Muscovite who could not order meat more than three days a week,” Matthews wrote in “The Kremlin's Candidate,” in which Nash and Egorova pursue a Russian agent in the U.S. government.
“The siloviki were the inheritors of the Gray Cardinals, the sclerotic members of the old Soviet politburo, who had starved Soviet Russians for 70 years with their ineptitude as implacably as this new crowd had been starving modern Russians for the last 20 years with their avarice.”
After retiring, Matthews settled in Rancho Mirage, California. He is survived by his wife and fellow intelligence veteran, Suzanne Moran Matthews, and their two daughters.
Born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Matthews grew up in a Greek-speaking household, majored in foreign languages at Washington & Lee University, studied journalism at the University of Missouri and eventually learned French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Hungarian. His career choice was unplanned: Through a relative in the State Department, he was interviewed by a government agency that turned out to be the CIA and asked to join because they were seeking Greek-language speakers.
“I was a junior guy,” he told Men's Journal in 2015, “and my job was to shut up and make sure the safe house had beer in the fridge. But that was the first time you got the sense that there were people in these dangerous little corners of the globe doing the same thing you were. As a young person, that was really cool. Obviously you couldn’t say anything. But there was a self-sustaining pride: ‘We’re actually in the CIA!’”
He was an unimposing man whom Men's Journal would describe as “the last person you'd peg as a spy — until you find out he was one." Recipient of a CIA Medal of Merit among other honors, he was reluctant to say too much about where he worked, and what he did. But he would indicate that he specialized in dangerous, “denied operations,” turned up on a terrorist hit list in the Middle East; and had to flee the U.S. embassy during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s, He also oversaw U.S. intelligence support for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
“Being in the Agency is a very experiential career, like being a policeman or a fireman or a jet pilot, and when it stops, it really stops,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “There are retiree groups that get together, mostly in Washington, and sit around and swap war stories, but I was living in California, and it was either write something or go fishing.”