An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews – Goodreads Book Review

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A biographical history of the USSR’s most successful covert agent, An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews follows the life of Richard Sorge, a German by name but a Russian communist by conviction who set up spy rings for the Soviets in China and Japan during the age of Stalin and leading up to World War II. Blessed with a death-defying daring, a seductive savoir-faire, and a perfect cover, Sorge was a formidable asset in the Soviets’ war against fascism – or he would have been, did not the very traits that made him so singular cause the communist regime, and Stalin, himself, to distrust him.

Based on newly-declassified records, Matthews’s history is as meticulously researched as it is readable. The focus is always on Sorge’s character, and the chapters are drawn together through a narrative that, after we have gotten to know Sorge, begins to obscurely hint at the book’s ending. Rather than spoil anything, this foreshadowing maintains a suspense that parallels Sorge’s daring character. And yet, though it can be read as a character study of a Soviet James Bond (alcohol, motorcycle rides, and romantic liaisons punctuate the book’s elaboration on how Sorge established his spy rings), An Impeccable Spy consistently maintains a peripheral view of the main events of the twentieth century of which we have read and/or heard of in school.

Foremost among such events was, perhaps, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact and invade Russia. While the conventional story is that, despite the similarities between their ideologies (which Sorge discovers, finding as he does how easy it is for a communist to pose as a fascist), Hitler betrayed and took Stalin by surprise, Matthews shows that not only had Sorge sent intelligence of Operation Barbarossa to Moscow, but Stalin had prepared for such a possible attack. However, for reasons established by Matthews, Stalin – who had by that time begun his party purge, from which Sorge was spared by distance – had begun to distrust Sorge. Thus, Matthews draws on a theme common to both his nonfictional and fictional works: the incompetence of the suspicious self-cannibalism of communist bureaucracy.

I read An Impeccable Spy as part of my goal to better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his historical fiction. However, a few hours into the audiobook (excellently narrated by Mike Grady), An Impeccable Spy became one of my favorites of Matthews’s contributions to the scholarship on 20th-century Russia. As with his other works, I plan to recommend friends and students read An Impeccable Spy for an entertaining and well-documented look at the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.


Black Sun by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

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Owen Matthews’s Black Sun follows Major Alexander Vasin as he investigates the apparent suicide of a scientist at a secret Soviet nuclear research facility. Throughout his investigation, Vasin questions whether it’s possible for men and women to be consistently good in an amoral or immoral society. With well-placed backstory, unexpected friendships and attractions, and the myriad pressures of being a member of a post-Stalinist KGB which nonetheless carries the previous generation’s scars, Matthews layers Vasin’s conflicts to create an entertaining and compelling historical thriller that does not hide from the contradictions—nor the virtues—inherent in its central characters.

Vasin’s internal struggles parallel the concrete need to uncover the circumstances surrounding young Fyodor Petrov’s gruesome death-by-radiation-poisoning while evading the official forces trying to place roadblocks in his way. Whether the brute authority of General Zaitsev and his secret police or the contemptuous erudition of Professor Adamov, the forces of the secret facility Arzamas-16 seek to halt Vasin’s investigation through the strangling officialdom of Soviet Russia—in which, to their chagrin, Vasin is himself a professional.

Matthews’ family relations and his background as a Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek provides an intimate and well-researched setting for Vasin’s experience, not only in the meticulous bureaucracy that encourages the maintenance of palatable lies but in the chronic need to keep at least one eye over one’s shoulder. Counting day-by-day up to the test of an untried and unprecedented nuclear device, the story’s structure leads up to a climax that is worth the steadily building conflicts of the preceding chapters. Whether for the thrill of Vasin’s investigation, the historically immersive setting, or the ironic dark humor that provides the only medium for such a subject matter, Matthews’ work is an excellent read.