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.