Retired CIA Operative Becomes Breakout Spy Novelist
"I started thinking about war stories," he said in an interview. "Pretty soon I blinked and I had like 300, 400 pages."
Five years on from his retirement, Matthews is back this week with a sequel, "Palace of Treason," set in
And the most interesting accolades are coming from CIA insiders, who marvel at how he manages to slip so much past the agency's censors, portraying the heart-pounding rhythms of on-the-street espionage better that any novelist in recent memory.
They're not alone:
Matthews, 63, spent most of his career overseas specializing in "denied areas," places where Americans were closely watched and their movements restricted. He is part of a long line of former spies who turned to fiction but the first to have spent a full career at the CIA, rising to management, and then emerge to write with such commercial and critical success.
Matthews speaks six languages and helped manage seven CIA stations, sometimes working in tandem with his wife, Suzanne, also a retired CIA officer. They raised two daughters in countries they aren't allowed to name. At one point he was operations chief in the counter-proliferation division, tasked with slowing
He says his books amount to "a love letter" to the
It's a different discipline than that employed by the many CIA case officers who spent the last decade doing tours in
Human intelligence, or HUMINT, is the "the patrimony of CIA," Matthews says. "The irony is that the global war on terror has actually taken away resources and institutional focus from classic HUMINT."
Matthews' novels are a celebration of HUMINT — the art and science of gathering it, the consequences when it goes wrong. He found an amenable setting in modern
The hero in his new book is clever, competent
Matthews, who could pass for an insurance salesman but for the thick-framed, fashion-forward glasses, spares few details in his steamy sex scenes.
"I've read a lot of thrillers, and some of the sex is almost offhand and embarrassingly vague," he says. "So I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum and be embarrassingly graphic."
The Americans are the good guys in these books, while the Russians are mostly corrupt torturers and thugs. Putin, a central character in "Palace of Treason," is portrayed as amoral, venal and paranoid.
Agency reviewers have focused more on scenes that depicted the main characters using disguises and carefully reading faces during hourslong surveillance detection routes to get "black" before a secret meeting. These "are accurate, richly detailed renderings of anxiety-filled tasks conducted daily by intelligence operatives around the world," former CIA officer
That book won Matthews the Edgar Award for best first novel by an American and a reputation among his former colleagues. The agency reviewers marveled at how Matthews got all the tradecraft, as spies call it, past the
Matthews said he hit a snag, however, with his follow-up novel and was forced to fly to
Still, the narrative bristles with reality.
When a Russian military officer wonders why his CIA handler isn't offering him frequency hopping mobile phones like the Russians use, the CIA man marvels to himself: "If they (only) knew how the FBI and the NSA were crawling up their frequency-hopping" posteriors.
Matthews depicts plenty of buffoonery by senior CIA officials, too, including a blustering, dangerously unqualified Moscow station chief whose inability to spot surveillance puts operations at risk. At headquarters, the chief of operations is caught in flagrante delicto with his female assistant.
Matthews' institutional criticism doesn't extend to the agency's harsh treatment of
"Some of the things that we've accomplished are absolutely magnificent, and have kept the bad guys at bay," he said. "You never actually win 100 percent, but we've pushed (weapons) programs back, and we've embarrassed bad people and eliminated other people."
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