As reported in the Chicago Tribune
; Jason Matthews spent his 69 years immersed in only the most thrilling of adventures. After three decades in the CIA, Matthews used eloquence and art to spin his classified tales into fiction in his renowned spy thrillers; and lived to see his characters lived out by Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, when his hit first novel “Red Sparrow” was adapted into a blockbuster.
This April, Matthews lost his life due to a rare brain disease that progressively destroys brain cells called corticobasal degeneration
A writer, spy, hyperpolyglot (a master of a whooping six languages), and avid adventurer of the world, Matthews wove together his covert work to be shared and understood. His work is renowned for its blend of thriller with truth, twisting his stories into fiction illustrated with an expertise on a world of secrecy only possible through the eyes of a seasoned insider.
is a rare degenerative neurological disorder that causes the death of cells in parts of the brain, causing decline in motor skills and cognitive and behavioral functioning. While the onset of symptoms and severity vary by individuals, common symptoms include difficulty coordinating voluntary movements, stiff limbs or the inability to control them, tremors, slowness, muscle spasms, dystonia, contractors, speech difficulty, and walking issues. Over time, many patients notice symptoms spreading from one limb, to the entire body, changing communication and resistance to common diseases. While there are symptomatic treatment options, including various types of physical, occupational, and speech therapies, as well as prescription drugs, there is no cure.
A Hyperpolyglot, A Writer, And A Spy
Matthews decided to continue his education pursuing the world of words, going on to study journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. After graduation he began to consider other routes to put his investigative mind and wide lens for communication to work.
It was his language roots though that landed him a job at the CIA when Matthews went straight to Washington on the job hunt. After passing a polygraph test in 1976, he was hired with the timely luck that the agency was in pursuit of a Greek-language speaker.
In 2015, Matthews explained to Men’s Journal,
“I was a junior guy and my job was to shut up and make sure the safe house had beer in the fridge. But that was the first time you got the sense that there were people in these dangerous little corners of the globe doing the same thing you were. As a young person, that was really cool. Obviously you couldn’t say anything. But there was a self-sustaining pride: ‘We’re actually in the CIA!’”
A Career in Espionage
While noted for his purportedly unassuming presence, that was key to his spy-success. Amongst his many honors over his years, he won the CIA Medal of Merit to memorialize his covert success.
While most of his personal stories from his career will never be known, bits and pieces painted a picture was painted over the years. Matthews had a specialization in “dangerous, denied operations” and a period in which his name was featured on a hit list for a terrorist organization in the Middle East. He worked for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and fled the Kosovo War in the 90’s to an American embassy.
Retirement from the Agency
Retirement comes abruptly for agents, with their stories classified as they find their way back into civilian life. In 2010, Matthews decided to move on from the agency and make his roots in Los Angeles.
Matthews made the transition without espionage companionship, so instead, he began reflecting back on the world he been part of through his imagination and pen. In a 2015 interview, He said to the New York Times,
“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. 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.”
As he began to reflect on his time in espionage, the necessity of discretion regarding actual details motivated him to turn his tales to fiction. As he began to unwind through writing, his expertise and detailed insider knowledge, mixed with a natural authenticity, made him stand out among the spy-novel genre. In 2013, he came out with his first novel, a feat he considered therapy.
“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.”
A Box-Office Success
Red Sparrow quickly took on a life of its own, taking the literary world by storm. The story won the Edgar Award for the Best First Novel by an American Author, and made his novel a quick hit.
The espionage thriller tells a story of a young Russian State intelligence officer. The agency places her as a seductress in order to track down a CIA officer who works with the agency’s most classified information on Russia. They dance between espionage and a twisted love affair, illustrated through life-like accounts written with the eyes of true experience.
Matthews took part in the film’s production as well, giving guidance for accuracy.
“Lord knows how he got the manuscript of “Red Sparrow” past the redacting committee at Langley, but he has turned his considerable knowledge of espionage into a startling debut. I have rarely encountered a nonfiction title, much less a novel, so rich in what would once have been regarded as classified information.”
said writer Charles Cumming in The New York Times.
“From dead drops to honey traps, trunk escapes to burst transmissions, Matthews offers the reader a primer in 21st-century spying. His former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their tradecraft.”
While Jason Matthews passed away this past April at 69, survived by his wife Suzanne and two daughters, his battle with his degenerative neurological disorder could not take away from the impact of his work.
Colin Harrison, Matthew’s editor, said to People,
“I knew right away I was reading something special. I didn’t think I was getting only a spy thriller — I was seeing a writer with his full powers.”