Jun 14, 2017

Senate Debates Spy Fiction, Including Jason Matthews

During his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in a brief and somewhat baffling debate on spy fiction with Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR). It was certainly surprising to hear the following exchange (which you can watch on CNN) occur on the Senate floor!

Cotton: Mr. Sessions, are you familiar with what spies call "tradecraft?"

Sessions: A little bit.

Cotton: That involves things like covert communications, and dead drops, and brush passes, right?

Sessions: That is part of it.

Cotton: Do you like spy fiction? John le Carré? Daniel Silva? Jason Matthews?

Sessions: Yeah. Alan Furst. David Ignatius... I just finished Ignatius's book.

Cotton: James Bond? Jason Bourne? Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?

To the last question, a giggling Sessions claims, "No..." then quickly admits, "Yes." I honestly thought for a second that some stenographer was going to end up transcribing a debate about who made the best 007! Weird as the exchange was (ultimately forming a basis for Cotton to compare allegations of collusion in Russia's tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election to fantastical espionage fiction), it does show that the two men have pretty good taste in spy writers. The inclusion of Jason Matthews (a former CIA officer) was especially apropos... or, I suppose, ironic, depending on your point of view.

The Kremlin's Candidate, the forthcoming final book in Matthews' trilogy that began with Red Sparrow (a book I selected as one of the ten best spy novels of the past decade) was at one time, according to a publisher's blurb posted last summer, supposed to deal with the exact topic being discussed at the hearing—Russian meddling in an American election! However, since the election it seems that the plot of the final novel has mutated somewhat as the book keeps being put off. I'm kind of surprised, because the original plot description seemed so literally torn from developing headlines that I would have thought Scribner would have done everything in their power to get it on shelves ASAP. Instead, they delayed the book until 2018 (ostensibly to tie in with the release of the Jennifer Lawrence movie of Red Sparrow, but last I heard the film was still slated for this fall), removed that original plot description, and replaced it with another, and then another, each one moving farther and farther away from the original, incredibly prescient premise. (The final version, sadly, sounds very much like a retread of the first two novels, when I was hoping for something different. I'm still looking forward to it, though, and hoping for the best!) Here is the publisher's original blurb, long since removed from Amazon and other retail sites.
The dazzling finale to the Red Sparrow Trilogy from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jason Matthews, featuring star-crossed Russian agent Dominika Egorova and CIA’s Nate Nash caught up in a blackmail scandal with Vladimir Putin and the newly elected US President.

A junior American code clerk has defected to the Russians. He informs the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service that former US Secretary of Commerce Natalie Childers manipulated US global trade agreements to facilitate trade deals for the investment conglomerate owned by her husband. Natalie is now the Democratic presidential candidate, in the middle of a vigorous national campaign.

Meanwhile double agent Dominika Egorova is ordered by Vladimir Putin to begin work on a special operation in which Russia will inform candidate Childers that her malfeasance will be made public unless she agrees—if she is elected President—to order Pentagon budget cuts, to propose debilitating reforms in NATO, and to move toward the dissolution of the Atlantic Alliance. Refusal will result in scandal and her impeachment. When Dominika reports on her mission to her CIA handlers, Nate, Benford, Gable, and Forsyth, they know that any leak, any misstep, will trigger the Kremlin to go public, destroy the American democratic process, and discredit the country forever. But any counter to the operation moreover will expose Dominika as a CIA asset. Dominika decides they must eliminate the blackmailers: President Putin and his diabolical mastermind, the only two other Russians who know about the plan.

With a plot ripped from tomorrow’s headlines, The Kremlin’s Candidate is a riveting read if you've never read Jason Matthews, and a thrilling conclusion to the trilogy begun with Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason, which The New York Times Book Review called, “a primer in twenty-first-century spying...terrifically good.”
I want to read that book! Perhaps Matthews elected to change the plot because tomorrow's headlines too quickly became today's, and he feared the timeliness had worn off. Or perhaps it was a political decision, since the candidate in the book was clearly based on Hilary Clinton, perhaps under the assumption that she would win the election and he didn't want to risk impugning the current Administration. (That doesn't seem like a very good reason, as the book is ultimately fiction either way.) Or perhaps the decision was editorial rather than the author's. Whatever the reason, that surefire bestselling plot now seems to be out the door, replaced with one that sounds sort of like Matthews' take on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Here is the current description on Amazon:
Russian counterintelligence chief Colonel Dominika Egorova has been a recruited asset of the CIA, stealing Kremlin secrets for her CIA handler Nate Nash for over seven years. In the dazzling finale to the Red Sparrow Trilogy—which will be published right before the release of Red Sparrow, a major motion picture starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgarton—their forbidden and tumultuous love affair continues, mortally dangerous for them both, but irresistible.

In Washington, a newly installed US administration is selecting its Cabinet members. Dominika hears a whisper of a closely held Kremlin operation to place a mole inside a high intelligence position. But it’s worse than that: One of the three candidates under consideration has been a paid Russian spy for a decade, selling precious US secrets. If the Kremlin’s candidate for the position is confirmed, the Russians will have access to all the names of assets spying for CIA in Moscow, including Dominika’s. But which of the three individuals is the mole?

Dominika’s report triggers a desperate mole hunt before she’s exposed and arrested. Resisting all suggestions to defect and save herself, Dominika recklessly immerses herself in the palace intrigues of the Kremlin, searching for the mole’s name, and stealing as many of President Putin’s secrets for her CIA handlers before her time runs out—even as Putin’s dangerous interest in her grows. The treasure trove of her intelligence reporting sends Nate Nash and colleagues on desperate missions to Sevastopol, Istanbul, Khartoum, and Hong Kong.

With a plot ripped from tomorrow’s headlines, The Kremlin’s Candidate is a riveting read if you’ve never read Jason Matthews, and a thrilling conclusion to the trilogy begun with Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason, which The New York Times Book Review called, “a primer in twenty-first-century spying...terrifically good.”
As I said... I'm still excited to read it, either way! But it does seem like a strange (or appropriate) connection for this author to have come up for discussion at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on real Russian interference in a U.S. election. And it's still kind of hilarious that a Senator asked an Attorney General, under oath, if he likes James Bond movies!

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