Book of the month: "Red Sparrow"

I first heard about RED SPARROW when I saw ads for the film of the same title, based on the book. After listening to a New Yorker interview with its author, Jason Matthews and hearing about the subject matter - a spy story - I decided to wait with watching the film and read the book first instead. I'm glad I did.

You see, Red Sparrow is a rather fascinating book. It has the suspense of a spy-thriller, and is filled with the kinds of details many people who are partial to the genre get excited about. Techniques for evading street-surveillance, gadgets that let you kill or listen in on someone, technological or chemical secrets of the trade - like the, by now obviously not so secret METKA - especially if you've been watching The Americans.

The book also features a recipe at the end of each chapter for a dish mentioned somewhere in said chapter. This is usually a trait of so-called Cozy Mysteries, a genre that rarely leaves as many bloodied and tortured bodies behind as Red Sparrow does. It seems somewhat out of place in the rather hard-boiled world the book takes place in, nevertheless, I found a couple of good recipes in there, so I don't mind at all.

Jason Matthews, the author of Red Sparrow and its two sequels - turning the whole thing into the Red Sparrow trilogy - can be expected to be the sort of guy who knows a thing or two about espionage. According to his biography, he spent the better part of his working life as a CIA-agent - doing exactly the sorts of things his characters do in the book.

Speaking of characters: the eponymous red sparrow - I'm assuming she's the one, even though it's never explicitly stated - is a Russian ex-ballet dancer turned spy Dominika Egorova, who at first seems like the perfect candidate for the job, but who soon realizes what an old-men's club the SVR - the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service - really is. I won't spoil too much here, but let's just say that she finds in young CIA-agent Nate Nash someone who might be more to her liking than the old men of the Rodina.

Matthews does a good job opening up the world of competing international intelligence services, he also has a knack for creating characters - both likable, unlikable and murderous ones. He gives himself the time to flesh out the inner lives of the characters he cares about most, and it's rare that decisions made seem incongruous with how you'd expect consummate professionals would act.

In addition to setting up this world filled with vivid characters, Matthews knows a thing or two about pacing too. Even though he likes to develop his characters, it doesn't get in the way of some good old fast-paced action.

I'm not sure how much of Matthews' bias shows when he depicts senior intelligence officials and their terror in the face of their all-powerful but taciturn master Vladimir Putin - when he talks, it's rarely a good sign - but it can be assumed that that is not too far from the truth.

If you like your spy-thrillers fast-paced, energetic, detailed and starring beautiful but smart people, RED SPARROW is for you.

A word of warning, though, when it comes to the film: nobody except those who are part of a production can ever tell how much meddling by the studios is involved in the creation of a film, but my guess is that in this production, the notes for the script were endless. The result is a bungled mess of a script that barely makes sense when you've read the book, and probably hardly any when you haven't.

At 2 hours and twenty minutes you'd expect they'd manage to pare it down to a degree that would accommodate the most important aspects of the book, instead it seems they yanked out the character development and chose to tuck on a nonsensical new twist to the story instead. It's a shame, because this could have been a good first installment to an interesting trilogy. Instead it's the sort of film you wish hadn't been made.