After a 33 year career working as a covert operative with the C.I.A., Matthews no doubt could have written an intriguing best seller about his days of espionage. But evidenced by this debut novel, Matthews not only knows his tradecraft, he has the writing chops to produce better than a one time tell-all. In the tradition of other great former spy-turned-novelists, Fleming, McCarry, le Carré -- Red Sparrow is a smart, tightly constructed novel that lays out such an information-packed, step by step foundation, that the listener feels complicit in the Cold War cat and mouse. Worthy of comparisons to the aforementioned authors...and with just enough playfulness to apparently keep it out of the Federal shredders.
This is the caliber of novel you expect from a veteran author -- or should I say "seasoned" author? Included at the end of each chapter is the recipe for some exotic dish that one of the characters has been noshing on -- an addition that has some critic's calling the bonus recipe a distraction and an unnecessary and gimmick. (I say if James Bond can have Pussy Galore, a razor brimmed bowler hat, and exploding toothpaste - Matthews can give his readers recipes.) Ignore these effete literary snobs; Matthew intentionally provided them with a bull's eye, saying in an interview he did, "The real world of intelligence work is a lot of waiting, analysis, research, so I had to insert some excitement in the fictional plot." Until reading the interview, I had wondered if a clue was provided in each recipe; every element of this story is so well constructed it would make sense--but not so...sometimes a red herring is just a red herring.
Also raising a critical eyebrow is the synesthete seductress (she sees colors around people), Russian intelligence officer Dominika. Her aura-enhanced vision however, is blessedly not an X-man-ish superpower, but an actual phenomenon that some people claim to experience (including author Vladim Nabokov). The condition is used as an ineffectual trait that adds interest to her character without really affecting her performance or the story. This was a bigger issue than the recipe, and I'm still chewing on that element being thrown into classic spy fiction...wondering if Matthews has future plans with this fascinating female spy.
The detail here is absorbing; the treachery and deceit will have you wide-eyed and tense, paranoid about dotting an "i" (the dot could be the message!). Maybe the recipes were at least a hint about how to enjoy this novel...This kind of from the ground up detailing takes time; the tension builds slowly, like the warm kettle of water that slowly comes to a boil and catches/cooks that proverbial frog...when it starts to bubble it is fast and furious. And unblinkingly vicious.
A difficult novel to narrate, with the Russian characters, dialogue, and terms, and Jeremy Bobb adds an understated panache to the story with his reading. Great read/highly recommend to fans of spy fiction. Best case scenario: Matthews continues with this character and his unique style and *packaging* (I, for one, would love the cookbook).
Everything I wrote in my 6/13 review of Red Sparrow (Matthews' debut novel featuring the synesthete seductress Dominika) I could copy and paste here...another sassy clever spy novel from a man that knows the business. So well does Matthews know this business of Spy vs. Spy that it makes for some intriguing reading between the lines; you might find yourself reading along, thinking no way some of this stuff could possibly happen in *real life* -- then suddenly realizing that Matthews is the *real life* with over 30 years deep in the CIA. That's very different, and possible proof that the truth really is stranger than fiction?
As noted by others, there is more sex, and more recipes. You may again yearn for an accompanying cookbook while you stock up on cabbages, beets, onions, garlic, horseradish, and sour cream; but, frankly, my attention was diverted a couple of times wondering where to-go-to for the definition of some of the (a-hem) sexual maneuvers employed by Dominika and her fellow Sparrow School graduates. (Maybe I'll tweet Matthews for some explanations.) The recipes were a speed bump for some readers with both Red Sparrow and this book, but they provide an olfactory identification with the territory that descriptors alone just can't do. You walk into the Kremlin, and the smell of mushrooms, garlic, and cabbage fills your senses, and immerses you in the moment. Add to that Dominika's synthete perceptions of a character's personality and intentions -- Matthews cleverly pulls you into 3-D reading.
It's just pure fun watching Matthews manipulate Putin! Like a voodoo master, he controls the Russian President's every move and every thought, subtly suggesting perhaps some ego issues, as well as physical prevarications. Matthews has said in interviews that a new Cold War is going on right now. As an author, he obviously knows the pen just might be as mighty as the sword. (Would love to read a review of this book by Putin ☺.)
The reason for a downgrade of one star from Red Sparrow...the characters were a little black and white; all the good guys were stereotypical white hatted GOOD and good-looking guys, and all the no-good-niks were black hatted and black-souled (and then there is the moose-ish catatonic female Russian agent from central casting...). Maybe that's the way Matthews found it out in the *real world*, but it emphasized the fiction here, and while Putin is a character at times, he unfortunately isn't just a figment of imagination that mashes into Matthews manipulations of fiction harmoniously. The plot is a little harder to follow, but still top notch spy material. A solid showing that won't disappoint fans of Red Sparrow.
'Nothing is ever what it seems' -- hold onto that mantra; it will serve you well as a reminder while traveling through the pages of this globe spinning political conspiracy that will have you feeling like you are navigating in the modern political panorama through a house of distorted mirrors. A smart, complex story of espionage that relies not on the thriller aspects, but on not knowing the intricacies of a tangled web of spy vs. spy.
The novel spans 20 tumultuous years, 1991-2011: Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, the Arab Spring, civil wars, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yugoslavia... and leaked political cables via WikiLeaks. The historical significance of those years is powerful when compressed and reflected on, and I suggest listening carefully to the *Collection Strategies* that precede chapter 1. The story jumps back and forth through the years, and employs different points of view, which helps once you chalk up any *contradictions* to point of view and not actual contradictions . The cast of characters is daunting at times, some critics suggest superfluous. I didn't find that the case. Steinhauer keeps a sharp focus on a twisting plot of foggy allegiances and surprising betrayals; the characters' weaknesses and strengths are revealed subtly.
I admit to stumbling with reckoning a bored, blonde, manicured, middle-aged, lady-that-lunches, being recruited to work in such a deadly theater. (Who knew the days of the obvious iron bowler hatted, or metal toothed giant no good-niks would give way to....me.) Maybe a case of the perfect front? Nothing is ever what it seems...
I liked D8U's thoughtful comments. As much as I also love this genre -- I read le Carré, Furst, Littell, Deighton, Oppenheim -- this was my first novel by Steinhauer and am glad to see Audible offers several Steinhauer titles from which to choose. Ideally, Ballerini would be the narrator for each novel; as always, first rate narration with this novel, which was no easy task when interpreting so many diverse characters. About all you can be sure of with The Cairo Affair is that it comes together into a good, slick read, and may possibly leave some of you trying to quiet some uncomfortable thoughts -- beyond which Steinhauer novel to read next.