It’s a Mystery: “Learn to control silence and you can control almost anyone”

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The Kremlin’s Candidate
By Jason Matthews
Scribner, 2018

The Kremlin's Candidate by Jason Matthews.jpg

This is the final installment in Matthews’ electrifying Red Sparrow trilogy, named after the dazzling debut novel of 2013. It was followed by the equally impressive Palace of Treason, from 2015 (the title refers to the Kremlin).  Now, we have The Kremlin’s Candidate, which, like the others, delivers high-voltage suspense and action-packed political intrigue on all cylinders.

Dominika Egorova, the ravishing former ballerina turned Russian spy, is back. Trained to sexually entrap promising targets to be spooks—“a sparrow”—she is also a graduate of the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR).  She is unusual in two other respects: one, she has a prodigious photographic memory. Two, she is synesthetic and perceives sounds or letters or numbers as colors. Even more unusual is the fact that her synesthesia extends to human reactions; she sees emotional content as colors, and therefore she is infallible at ferreting out liars.

It’s been more than seven years since she was recruited by CIA agent Nathaniel Nash and encrypted DIVA.  Once she began, she rationalized that spying for the CIA was helping the Rodina (Motherland), not betraying it. Nate, who she calls Neyt, is both her handler and her lover. (Their affair is officially frowned upon by the powers that be at the agency, but they choose to look the other way, “in the interests of intel production and keeping DIVA motivated.”) Domenika has risen to the rank of colonel in the SVR.  That’s the successor to the KGB’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Kremlin’s overseas spies. Domenika is now one of the CIA’s premiere foreign assets, and, as she informs Nate and all the Langley insiders, is poised, because of Putin’s continued sponsorship, to get the Directorship of the SVR. This would give her unparalleled access to Putin’s inner circle:

Not just secret plots rolling the halls of the Kremlin, but also the plans and intentions of the circumspect and coy Vladimir Vladimirovich.

What she doesn’t know yet is that the CIA’s Director, Alexander Larson, is the Kremlin’s next assassination target:

Alexander Larson, the sitting Director of CIA, was the first DCIA in thirty years to have come  up through the operational ranks…. During his fourteen years in the operational field. Larson had built the COPPERFIN espionage network, the massive, pervasive penetration of the entire State aerospace design, construction and testing combine in the Russian Federation…. Immune from dyspeptic antagonists, DCIA Larson in consultation with Simon Benford (the quirky, flamboyant head of CIA counterintelligence) launched his own active-measures campaign against the Putin regime…. He increased intel sharing with allied services, especially in Ukraine and the Baltics, which resulted in several flashy spy arrests of red-faced Russian intel officers. (The Director and DIVA had never met; Larson properly left the case in the hands of Benford and company).

Blissfully unaware of the sword over his head, Larson is huddled in his office with Benford, who outlines succinctly how they will proceed:

Jamming a stick into Putin’s spokes at this time was critical given his brazen interference on the world stage…. Twisting the Russian bear’s tail abroad, moreover, would distract the Kremlin and thus protect valuable assets, such as COPPERFIN. The Russians would be driven frantic in the face of withering international disparagement.

This is a masterpiece of understatement when it comes to Putin’s rage at this American exposé. He is venting his anger, in part fueled by fright, in his isolated dacha 130 kilometers outside St. Petersburg. With him is Anton Gorelikov, his adviser on foreign and domestic affairs, national security, and manipulating world events in favor of the Russian Federation. Known as Vladimir’s Machiavelli, he had the president’s confidence (as far as Vladimir Putin conferred his total trust on anybody) chiefly because he never sank to sycophancy. Putin knew Anton Gorelikov would never covet his throne. Most important, Putin valued Gorelikov’s proclivity for and love of naneseniye uvech’ya, covert mayhem.

As a storm rages outside, the two men sit with bowls of lamb stew at either end of a plank table in what is known as “the Devil’s waiting room” and Gorelikov calmly puts forth his audacious scheme to eliminate the CIA Director. Exact details of how, he relishes telling Putin, to be most carefully and secretly crafted—not to worry.  Barely blinking, Putin dubs the project Kataklizm and Anton knows that the president—slayer of tigers, accomplished horseman, skilled jet pilot and master of judo—fully appreciates the colossal risk of attempting to knock off the American DCIA and is hooked.

On a roll, as they say, Gorelikov posits what he calls “an additional refinement.” Maneuver things so that MAGNIT, Vice Admiral Audrey Rowland, for twelve years their star mole and unquestionably the jewel in the GRU crown—that’s the military foreign intelligence service of the general staff of the Russian Federation—be seriously considered as the DCIA’s replacement:  

Gorelikov counted on his fingers. “We endeavor to influence outcomes—often with no guarantees—and hope for the desired results. The utter implausibility of making MAGNIT the DCIA is the hallmark of the perfect zagover, an exquisite conspiracy without Russian fingerprints. She has no high-profile civilian patrons, no covert sponsors, so there are no invisible strings. MAGNIT, the brilliant but unlovely stork, solidly partisan, able to manage the challenges of technology and the new cyber age, is the perfect candidate. If she is selected, you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, will own the CIA.

Domenika, Nate, et al, get wind of the plot involving MAGNIT, but the mole’s identity remains Putin’s and Gorelikov’s closely guarded secret. They know that if the Kremlin’s candidate for the position is confirmed, the Russians will have access to all the names of assets spying for the CIA in Moscow, including and most especially Domenika.  This triggers a desperate Mole hunt while our heroine brashly immerses herself in the palace intrigues of the Kremlin, stealing as many of Putin’s secrets for her CIA handlers before her time runs out.  Adding to the danger, she must cope with a smitten Putin, whose increasingly intimate advances she cannot ignore. All too familiar is his phlegmatic expression that falls somewhere between a grin and a leer.”

Into a breathtaking mix of vividly realized characters are two cold blooded killers who stand out. Iosip Blokhin, a ruthless, amoral Spetsnaz military officer feared and despised by Domenika, and Grace Gao, a domineering and mysterious villainous – sort of a cross between Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates. The nonstop action is global, taking us from Moscow to Sevastopol, Khartoum and Hong Kong, the Sudan and Turkey and, of course, Washington D.C.

Matthews’ three-decade career with the CIA serves him well with this finale, whose nail-biting conclusion will have you reeling in disbelief. This is a masterly, penetrating portrait of today’s clandestine geopolitical conflicts. It’s darkly humorous, savage and scintillating, and as top-notch spy novels go, in a class by itself.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.