Jason Matthews — who after 33 years as a CIA officer in Istanbul; Athens, Rome; Belgrade, Serbia; Rome; Budapest, Hungary; and Hong Kong, became a bestselling author of three spy thrillers — died Wednesday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 69.
His wife, Suzanne, who was also a CIA officer, said the cause was corticobasal degeneration, a rare disease in which nerve cells degenerate and die.
In his choice of a second career, Matthews followed other intelligence officers, including John le Carré, Ian Fleming and Charles McCarry, who became novelists — and who brought to their writing a knowledge of recruiting and handling foreign agents, and of dead drops, brush passes, honey traps, debriefings, surveillance and countersurveillance.
“A lot of new thrillers are written by people who have not lived the life,” Matthews told The New York Times in 2015, “and a lot of them seem to be about a bipolar agency guy, helped by his bipolar girlfriend, trying to chase a bipolar terrorist who has a briefcase nuke and there’s 12 hours left to go.”
His book “Palace of Treason,” he said, “is all fiction, but it’s an amalgam of people I’ve known, of things I’ve done, of stuff I’ve lived.”
Matthews began to write after he retired in 2010 from his final CIA posting, as the station chief in Los Angeles, the seventh time he had been a chief or deputy chief. With his career over, he considered it therapeutic to adapt his knowledge of espionage into fiction. Writing his first novel, “Red Sparrow” (2013), became more than a case of a former operative unburdening himself.
“I knew right away I was reading something special,” said Colin Harrison, vice president and editor-in-chief of Scribner, who edited Matthews’ work. “I didn’t think I was getting only a spy thriller — I was seeing a writer with his full powers.”
“Red Sparrow” introduced the main characters of Matthews’ three novels: Dominika Egorova, a beautiful Russian intelligence officer trained (against her wishes) in seduction, and Nate Nash, the ambitious young CIA agent she targets to uncover a mole in the SVR, the successor to the KGB. They become lovers, and she becomes a double agent.
His novels were well received for their narrative drive and their details of espionage tradecraft.
“‘Red Sparrow’ isn’t just a fast-paced thriller — it’s a first-rate novel as noteworthy for its superior style as for its gripping depiction of a secretive world,” Art Taylor wrote in his review of the book in The Washington Post. “While many former CIA agents and MI6 operatives have turned to writing fiction in retirement, Matthews joins a select few who seem as strong at their second careers as at their first.”(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Dominika and Nate returned in “Palace of Treason” (2015) and “The Kremlin’s Candidate” (2018), in which President Vladimir Putin (a recurring character in all three books) conceives a plot to assassinate the director of the CIA and replace him with a U.S. Navy lieutenant who had been compromised by Dominika.
“I wake up every morning and I think, ‘Thank heavens for Vladimir Putin,’” Matthews told The Associated Press in 2017. “He’s a great character, and his national goals are the stuff for spy novels: Weaken NATO, dissolve the Atlantic alliance, break up the European Union.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)James Jason Matthews was born Sept. 17, 1951, in Hartford, Connecticut. His mother, Aglaia (Argiris) Matthews, was a homemaker. His father, Charles, was in a family baking business that developed a technique for flash-freezing pies, which the family sold to General Foods. All of Matthews’ immigrant grandparents spoke Greek, and he spoke the language when he talked to them.
After graduating from what is now Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts, Matthews received a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where he studied Spanish and French. Soon after earning a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 1975, he went looking for a job in Washington, D.C.
One of his several interviews was at the CIA, which particularly prized his ability to speak Greek, one of several languages in which he became fluent. The agency hired him in 1976 after he passed a background check and a polygraph exam.
He spent the next 33 years in the directorate of operations, the CIA’s clandestine arm.
He met Suzanne Moran in 1979 while both were working in Athens, and they married four years later. They worked together in the CIA for more than 30 years.
“As an agency spouse working in tandem, I knew when he said he would be out ‘meeting an agent at midnight,’ that that was exactly what he was doing,” she said. “We had a shared passion for the work.”
She was also the first reader of his manuscripts.
Matthews bought his passion for surveillance and countersurveillance to his novels. He opened “Red Sparrow” — which was made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence in 2018 — with Nate in Moscow, following an elaborately elusive course on his way to meeting a Russian major general who is a top CIA mole: “It had long since gotten dark as Nate ran the surveillance detection route designed to tickle the belly hairs of surveillance, to stretch them, to get them excited enough to show themselves. There was nothing, not a hint of swirling, leapfrogging, banging around corners on the streets behind him, no reaction to his moves. Was he black? Or was he being had by a massive team? In the nature of The Game, not seeing coverage felt worse than confirming you were covered in ticks.” (“Black” means free of surveillance.)
In addition to his wife, Matthews is survived by his daughters, Sophie Baumann and Alexandra Matthews; a granddaughter; and a brother, William.
When “Red Sparrow” was published, two reviewers for a CIA publication, Studies in Intelligence, praised it for its verisimilitude, writing that it “will make the in-house reader wonder how he got all this past the Publications Review Board,” the body that approves writings by current and former agency employees.
The review board required few changes to “Red Sparrow.” It spent far more time poring over “Palace of Treason.”
“The storyline featured the Iranian nuclear program, and that’s more sensitive,” Suzanne Matthews said. “He made it all up, but that was a tough one; it took 11 months to approve.”
The agency required him to cut a major plot element, Harrison said.
But, he added, “Jason was so ingenious with its replacement (itself subject to approval) that we later agreed the book was even better as a result.”