Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Paul Vidich has become an expert at writing espionage novels loosely-based on real facts, and with The Matchmaker he returns to what he does best, taking us towards the end of the Cold War and sending us on a hunt after a high-ranking East German counterintelligence officer. Simply known as the titular Matchmaker, he is desperately sought-after by the CIA, being helped by the one woman who knows his face, having once seen it on a photograph.
Table of contents
Paul Vidich Opens the Spy Hunting Season
The Cold War was more often than not marked by subversion and spycraft, with defectors and moles on both sides jumping the fence as if it was a routine practice. While most of them went down anonymously in the annals of history, a few of them did rise to public prominence, Markus Wolf (1923-2006) being one of the more interesting ones, and Paul Vidich‘s new novel, The Matchmaker, is loosely based on the man’s story.
The story takes us to 1989, a time when the Cold War was nearing its end and instability was beginning to creep in on the Soviet side. We are introduced to Anne Simpson, an interpreter for the US Army living in occupied West Berlin, while married to an East German man, Stefan Kroehler, a piano tuner who travels the region.
One day, Stefan goes missing, and Anne is hit with the heaviest piece of news she had ever felt in her life: her husband is actually an East German Stasi agent. Naturally, the West German police think she knows more than she lets on, but their interrogations don’t lead them very far, and they send Anne right back into the arms of the Americans, who themselves are devising a plan.
While the West Germans are combing the river between the two sides for Stefan’s body, East German intelligence isn’t so certain of his death, and the Americans plan on following their search for him in hopes of making contact with the Matchmaker, Rudolf Kruger. He’s a proverbial man without a face, responsible for matching innumerable women in West Germany with Stasi agents.
This is where Anne Simpson comes into play. Nobody knows what Rudolf actually looks like, except for Anne who once saw his face in a picture her husband had erroneously left out in the open. Both sides begin to pressure and use her for their own ends and means, and pretty quickly she realizes nobody can be trusted in a game where human lives are nonchalantly traded twenty-four hours a day.
The Secretive Characters in The Matchmaker
While developing characters is important for every type of novel, I believe there are some genres which allow their authors to get away with a lot more (or a lot less) than others. When it comes to espionage books, I’ve always found character development to be of paramount importance, largely because I feel it is necessary to understand why they are taking insane risks, to justify their actions and give true meaning to the story they’re in, one beyond entertainment.
In The Matchmaker our cast of characters isn’t very large, which is already a massive blessing for someone who has read through some novels which pull way too far in the opposite direction. Having a smaller cast allows Paul Vidich to explore each and every member in greater depth, and they all harbour their own secrets, following their own morals and ambitions.
Apart from Anne Simpson, there are three CIA agents involved in the story: James Cooper, his boss Dick Winslow, and his boss at Langley, Deputy Director George Mueller. They each have their own roles in the operation, and slowly learning about their true ambitions was one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel for me, to see the convoluted truth slowly rising to the surface.
We also get a glimpse into the West German side of things by following two officers, Inspector Erich Prager and Tomas Keller, as they try and follow up on their suspicions of Anne’s potential involvement with the Stasi. The author uses them time and time again as a window into the West German way of operating, and they too have some tricks up their sleeves, ready to challenge the reader’s preconception of their capabilities.
Finally, though we don’t see the man in question all that much, Rudolf Kruger is without a doubt a central character, our picture of him painted largely through legends of past exploits and what other people know of him. Vidich does an excellent job at characterizing the man without showing him, creating a vivid portrait of the man and the cruel lengths he’s willing to walk to achieve his goals. He’s a nuanced type of antagonist, and I think the author did justice to Markus Wolf, the man after whose biography the Matchmaker is modeled.
The Methods of the Cold War
While The Matchmaker is indeed a novel, I think any story basing itself on real events and attempting to depict historical scenarios owes it to the reader to be factual, at least to a certain extent. In other words, I firmly believe anyone writing an espionage novel must by duly diligent in their research so as not to misinform the reader or paint inaccurate pictures of the past.
Paul Vidich has, as far as I can tell, done as much research and studying as he could on the subject, taking great care in his depiction of West Germany, its people, the reigning political and social climates, and perhaps most importantly, the methods employed by intelligence and counterintelligence officers on both sides of the war.
He finds the right way of mixing facts about the methods of Cold War spies with the plot he is advancing, often shaping his entertaining fiction around a solid base of truth. Additionally, I also found him to be fair and realistic in his depiction of East Germany, at least when it comes to the spy games; they are presented as equals intelligent and proficient in their own right, capturing the belief they held in their ideology.
I think this is especially true for his description of Rudolf Kruger, or should I say, his use of the fictional man to portray Markus Wolf. Rather than showing him as an inherently evil mastermind taking pleasure in subverting others to his plans (which would have been all too easy), Vidich instead does his best to show him as a human being to explore not only his methods, but also the drive behind them.
Another aspect of the novel I came to appreciate was how understated it felt at times, with the author often opting for turns of phrase which leave something up to the reader’s imagination. He doesn’t spoon-feed us and hold our hands. Instead, he trusts us to use our own brains to understand what’s happening and why, a sign of respect towards the reader becoming increasingly rare, at least as far as I can tell.
|Feb. 1 2022
The Final Verdict
The Matchmaker by Paul Vidich is a fantastic espionage novel set at the end of the Cold War, stapling together multiple narrative threads into an exciting and educative hunt after the kind of spy history won’t soon forget.
If you’re looking for a spy novel taking place during the Cold War and are interested in the idea of hunting after a master operative working from the shadows, then I think this book will be pleasant read for you.
Paul Vidich is a former senior executive in the entertainment industry who has more recently become a full-time author, writing successful novels including The Mercenary, The Coldest Warrior, which was shortlisted for the UK’s Staunch Prize and chosen as a Notable Selection of 2020 by CrimeReads, The Honorable Man and The Matchmaker.