Jason Matthews is a retired spy but doesn’t look like one. He more nearly resembles a high school principal: calm, patient, a little bland. The only clues to his former occupation — 33 years with the CIA — are his uncanny peripheral vision and his occasional use of terms like “ops” and “intel.”
Matthews, 63, is also a novelist, one of the long line of real-life spies who have also written spy thrillers. The tradition goes back at least to Erskine Childers, the Irish nationalist and gun smuggler who wrote the 1903 thriller “The Riddle of the Sands,” and includes Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Stella Rimington, Charles McCarry and even E. Howard Hunt, more famous for Watergate, who all reaped great fictional dividends from the Cold War.
Matthews’ new book, “Palace of Treason,” which comes out from Scribner on Tuesday, is a sequel to his best-selling “Red Sparrow.” It’s set in contemporary Russia, where a pajama-clad Vladimir Putin even turns up in a character’s bedroom, but like the earlier novel, it’s old-school. While there are a couple of James Bondian touches, such as a pistol that looks like a tube of lipstick, the main characters — Dominika Egorova, a Russian agent secretly working for the United States, and Nate Nash, her CIA lover and handler — depend mostly on traditional tradecraft. They spend a lot of time walking around and trying to avoid being followed.
Escaping surveillance is what Matthews used to do for a living. Officially he was a diplomat, in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, but his real job was recruiting and then managing foreign agents, often in places where such activity was forbidden.
“There were a lot of mind games going on,” he recalled one morning not long ago at the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown, where he was staying on a brief publicity trip to New York. “You wake up in the morning, and there’s a cigarette stubbed out in the ashtray. An entry team has come in the house at night and left the butt to let you know they were there.”
The ways that surveillance and avoiding it are depicted in the movies — people darting into the subway and diving into taxicabs — are all wrong, Matthews went on to say, and he proposed an experiment.
“Let’s pretend we’re in the SDRDB — the Social Democratic Republic of de Blasio — and we’re on our way to meet an agent.” In “Palace of Treason,” a young CIA recruit walks for 13 hours to make sure she’s not being tailed, and Matthews guessed that evasion was probably happening right then in real life. “I promise you,” he said, that “within a mile of here, there’s a Russian talking to someone he shouldn’t be talking to.”
Heading out the door of the Algonquin, he pointed out that the doorman was probably in the employ of the SDRDB. “He’s the eyes and ears of the place — he sees everything.” And the cashier at the parking garage across the street, she could be a lookout. At the corner of 44th Street and Sixth Avenue, Matthews waited for the light and observed that Sixth was a “thick” area, one so heavily trafficked that surveillance would be hard to spot. And there were cameras all over this neighborhood — in all the banks, high up on building corners, in the doorway of the HBO building. There are cameras everywhere in the SDRDB, it turns out, and since they’re owned by the state, Matthews said, they can be live-monitored.
On his way to Bryant Park, where he hoped the traffic might be thinner, Matthews made a point of not looking at the reflections in store windows. That’s a trick so old it’s amateurish, he explained. In up-to-date tradecraft, the whole point is to pretend not to notice that you’re being followed. “You never try to elude or escape from surveillance,” he explained. “You want to lull them into thinking that you’re not operational on this particular day. You want to calm the beast.”
Though Matthews never moved his head, nothing escaped his notice. In Times Square, he spotted more cameras. And transponders, on lamp posts, that keep track of buses. And the Fox Business correspondent Charlie Gasparino, hurrying by in a crowd. Times Square was not just thick, it was thronged. All those Elmos and Minnies — how many were working for the SDRDB? And to make matters worse, there was a police communications tower right in plain sight.
Basically Midtown in the SDRDB is “horrendous” for tradecraft, Matthews concluded. If you wanted to escape discovery and meet with someone you shouldn’t, you’d be much better off someplace like Brooklyn.
Colin Harrison, Matthews’ editor at Scribner, is himself an accomplished thriller writer, but he said he had never paid much attention to spy novels until the manuscript of “Red Sparrow,” Matthews’ first book, turned up on his desk.
“Jason knows several languages, and he’s clearly very smart,” he said. “All those years he spent observing and talking to people — if you think about it, it’s pretty good training for a novelist. The spying and writing skill sets overlap. He’s clearly read a lot, especially classic Cold War writers like le Carré and McCarry.”
Harrison also remarked that Matthews could be a little evasive about certain details of his career. “For a guy who says he was never stationed in Moscow, he knows a lot about the place,” Harrison said.
Matthews said he got into novel writing as “therapy.”
“Being in the Agency is a very experiential career, like being a policeman or a fireman or a jet pilot, and when it stops, it really stops,” he said. “There are retiree groups that get together, mostly in Washington, and sit around and swap war stories, but I was living in California, and it was either write something or go fishing.”
He was not a trained writer, he said, but he went to journalism school before being hired by the CIA, and a lot of his work there consisted of writing cables and reports. He added: “A lot of new thrillers are written by people who have not lived the life, 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. My book is all fiction, but it’s an amalgam of people I’ve known, of things I’ve done, of stuff I’ve lived.”
Talking about the old-fashioned kind of tradecraft in “Palace of Treason,” he said, “I guess it’s a reflection of my age and my generation in the Agency, and a reaffirmation that in spite of all the gadgets, it’s still about two people. It’s called humint for a reason — it’s human intelligence — and the only thing that can do humint is humans.”