Tag Archives: spy

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!

The sad business of redemption

JulianJulian Wells was a writer of true-crime books, books that laid bare the atrocities that man can commit, that took an unflinching look at evil.  But why, with all his success and security, did Julian make his own life so difficult?  Why did he spend so much time apart from friends and from family? And why did he choose to kill himself?

That final question is the one which most troubles Julian’s best friend, Philip Anders, in Thomas H. Cook’s The Crime of Julian Wells.   Close since childhood, Julian is like a second son to Philip’s father, a state department functionary who dreamed at one time of being a spy.

Anders thinks that the answer may be found in the book that Julian was researching at the time of his death, which connects to an episode in their shared past in which a young Argentinian woman – their guide – disappeared.   As he works to unravel the mystery of Julian’s suicide, Anders finds that he did not know his friend as well as he thought he did, and that many people are not what they seem.   Through his discovery of the true Julian, Anders also finds himself.  The resolution is tinged with irony and sorrow, but also hope.

Thomas H. Cook is a author with many books to his name, an Edgar recipient for The Chatham School Affair, and reliably entertaining and thought-provoking.  Another excellent read is his The Last Talk with Lola Faye (my review here), a book which also explores the interpersonal underpinnings of crime.