Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

When Art Imitates Life: Veteran CIA Officer Writes Second Spy Novel


Jason Matthews worked for the CIA for 30 years and not analyzing cables in an office in the woods in Virginia, but working the street, following folks who might be turned into double agents, keeping in touch with spies who have something so secret to report that the exchange of information is also a deep, dark secret. Matthews has written a new book called "Palace Of Treason." That's a slang description of the Kremlin. And it brings back some of the characters from this first book "The Red Sparrow." Notably, the beautiful Russian intelligence officer, Dominika Egorova and the dashing, of course, CIA Officer Nate Nash. Others, including President Vladimir Putin, play important supporting roles in a book that is a super-tense and exciting version of the spy novels made popular by John LeCarre, filled with tradecraft like how to lose followers from the other side and spy slang, making the reader feel like a momentary insider in a secret world. Jason Matthews joins us from KUCR in Riverside, Calif. Welcome to our program.

JASON MATTHEWS: Thank you. Nice to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this book is a sort of a souped-up throwback to the novels of the Cold War - two super powers squaring off. Why go back to that? Is it because was at the golden age of spy novels or something? Is this a celebration of what human intelligence can do?

MATTHEWS: Well, it is a celebration, but, you know, Linda, it's also a celebration of the new Cold War; a Cold War that is going on right now as we speak.

WERTHEIMER: Between, once again, the main enemies, as you call them in the book?

MATTHEWS: Yeah. The Cold War basically is based on ideology, on economics, on commerce, but the barometer of the Cold War is the level of spying that states do against one another.

WERTHEIMER: And do you think that's still right up there?

MATTHEWS: It's absolutely - it's humming along nicely.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

MATTHEWS: If you remember in the summer of 2010, the FBI arrested 11 Russian illegals. That's another name for deep-cover sleeper agents. And these people were living in the United States as Americans, as your neighbors for a decade trying to develop access to secrets.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your heroine, Dominika, is spying for the Americans not because she fears for the destruction of Russia from without so much as a she fears for the collapse of Russia because of corruption within.

MATTHEWS: Well, that's exactly right. Dominika, the character in my book, is fed up with the corruption and the rot of Putin's Russia. He is trying to preserve his kleptocracy, his inner circle of FSB and KGB insiders, the oligarchs, the massive corruption and theft of public funds. He is the news Czar. And the story is basically - Dominika is recruited by Nate Nash, and they fall in love. And then there's always the threat of her name being exposed. I wrote in Vladimir Putin because he's such a compelling character. She goes back to Moscow as a penetration of the Kremlin, and he notices her and brings her into the inner circle.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things I was intrigued by in reading your book was that you put recipes at the end of every chapter. You've done this in both your books. Spy novelist's cookbook, what's that about?

MATTHEWS: Well, I've always admired writing in books that describe food, describe meals but describe it well to get your mouth watering. And I thought to myself, I'd be a little provocative and put a very elliptical recipe at the end of each chapter describing food that's mentioned in the preceding chapter. But these are recipes without measurements or oven temperatures. It's how your grandmother used to cook - a pinch here, a pinch there.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) So are you the cook in your family. Do you have a family?

MATTHEWS: I do. My wife Suzanne was also a 33-year veteran of the agency. We worked together. We were called a tandem couple. To answer your question, she cooks too.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

MATTHEWS: We lived most of our 33 years overseas.

WERTHEIMER: So did you model this woman after your favorite females spy, your wife?

MATTHEWS: Well, not really. But, you know, we did this work together. We worked a lot. In the old days of the Cold War in their ponderous chauvinism, the Soviets in the east block and the Cubans never assumed that spouses of diplomats would do anything, what we call, operational, do any spy work because they'd go shopping and they'd push the baby in the carriage. But on any given dark and stormy night, I'd take a walk in the city park with 15 surveillants on me, and Suzanne would be coming home from a book club reading at the Canadian embassy. She'd check her status. If she was black, that means surveillance free. She'd go and to the operational act. And the bad guys, the opposition, never knew what hit him.

WERTHEIMER: So they were following you, and she was doing the deed.

MATTHEWS: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: Jason Matthew's new book is called "Palace Of Treason." Mr. Matthews, thank you very much.

MATTHEWS: Nice to be here. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.