Tag Archives: CIA

Best First Novel Nominee: Red Sparrow

red sparrowWhat do you get when a 33-year CIA veteran with literary talent pens his debut novel?  If you’re talking  Jason Matthews, who led the Operations Directorate before his retirement, and the book Red Sparrow, what you get is a page-turner that is strong on spycraft and plot with plenty of heart.  And of course, you get an Edgar nomination.  This is an amazingly strong entry right out of the gate, and I wish the other nominees the best of luck in the quest to surpass Red Sparrow in the Lunchbox rankings.

Here’s the quickie plot synopsis:  Beautiful Russian dancer (Dominika) wants to serve her country, is sent to spy school but is mostly expected to lure diplomats into sexual scandals (or to their deaths).  She can’t get out because evil uncle is basically holding her mother hostage.  Meanwhile, clever Nate is running a high-level, high value Russian mole.  Their paths cross as each tries to “turn” the other.  It’s no surprise that Nate and Dominika are soon working together for the U.S. – and in love.   As the pulse-pounding plot unfolds, the reader’s hopes are dashed, then lifted, and then dashed again… how will it all end?  I refuse to say since I want you to go read it yourself.

Here’s what I liked about Red Sparrow:

  • No cardboard cutout characters, real people – even the smaller characters are well-drawn.
  • Wow!  Backstories for the main characters.
  • Loved the Russian turncoat, MARBLE.  What a guy.
  • Bad stuff happens, and people just have to suck it up.
  • Love story is prominent, but not overdone.
  • Pacing is awesome.
  • Engimatic ending.

Here’s what I didn’t like:  Not much.  Perhaps it’s a somewhat annoying that Dominika is soooo awesome.  But at least she limps a little bit.

mwa_logoI know Red Sparrow‘s the first one I’m reviewing, but it’s setting the bar really high.  Let’s see how the rest of the nominees stack up!

Finding a new author to follow: Peter Spiegelman

Peter Spiegelman‘s current crime novel, Thick as Thieves, features an ex-CIA operative as the operational brains behind crime ring that relies on the long con to make a clean getaway.  He’s haunted by his past and his ability to trust his crew and himself, thanks to a caper-gone-bad that resulted in the death of his mentor and father figure.  The book has a very even tone, some surprising twists, and is of the type I consider “an intellectual read,” meaning that you have to put some thought into it to get the most out of it… you’re not just rushed along by the pace of the plotting.

So, stimulated to find that Thick as Thieves is not Spiegelman’s first book, I went backwards in time to Black Maps, his debut novel.  Like Thick as Thieves, it features a protagonist with a past.  In this case, PI John March is an ex-deputy Sheriff whose dogged pursuit of a case led a serial killer to make his final kill… March’s wife.   Black Maps finds March holding it all together (barely) by focusing on his fledgling business, his current case, and fending off the entreaties of his relatives trying to pull him into the family firm.  Blue bloods, they weren’t thrilled with John March as a cop, and they’re even less thrilled with him as a PI.  The book was mesmerizing (as evidenced by the Shamus Award it received).

On to the two subsequent John March books:  Death’s Little Helpers and Red Cat.  Also good.  I gulped Red Cat in a day, staying up way-too-late last Friday night so that I could finish it, drawn in by March’s efforts to save his brother from a murder charge.  Let’s just say the brother is NOT a wonderful guy.  And something about that made the story even better. It’s one thing to move heaven and earth to save the virtuous.  John March had to move heaven and earth to save a guy who had some pretty scummy secrets… but is still 1) his brother; and 2) innocent of the crime for which he was charged.

Spiegelman’s bio reads:  Peter Spiegelman worked on Wall Street for twenty years developing software systems for international banking institutions and retired in 2001 to devote himself to writing.  This background informs Spiegelman’s work, adds that feeling of authenticity, but doesn’t overwhelm the characters, plot, or emotion.  His web site also notes he’s the editor for Wall Street Noir, a collection of short stories.  I didn’t know that till today.  Good thing the library’s open.