And then, after leaving the CIA in 2010, he took to his computer and began writing. Red Sparrow (Scribner, $26.99) is the result: a spy thriller that rings with authenticity - surveillance detection runs, commo bursts, dead drops.
But even better, Matthews - a devotee of the ultimate spy-turned-scribe, John le Carré - knows how to make stuff up, too. Matthews says he has never been to Moscow and doesn't know Russian (he does speak five other languages), but much of his crackling espionage debut takes place there. The book begins with its hero, a CIA newbie by the name of Nathaniel "Nate" Nash, meeting up with a Russian mole on the cobblestone back streets of the Eastern European capital. The novel's other central character is Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina now in the employ of the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence agency.
She is beautiful and complicated. He is inexperienced and eager. Let the game begin.
"I imagined a lot of things, and a lot of things come from my fevered brain," Matthews says with a soft chuckle, on the phone the other day from Los Angeles. "That's the conundrum of writing spy fiction: that the reality of the career, the reality of the work - a lot of it is very boring. A lot of it is analysis and study and researching and waiting, and missing contacts and not being sure.
"Fast cars, fast women - that's the James Bond thing, but that's not the reality."
Happily, Red Sparrow strikes just the right balance: the reality - and that James Bond thing. Matthews was required to submit his manuscript to the CIA's Publication Review Board, where it was vetted for security purposes, but, he says, "as long as it's fictional, and as long as it doesn't give up specific techniques, you can write a surprising amount of stuff."
Matthews' novel also takes a keen look at 21st-century relations between the United States and Russia. President Vladimir Putin, in fact, plays a small but pivotal role in Matthews' fiction, and it is hardly a flattering portrayal. If you think the Cold War is a thing of the past, think again.
"I wanted to poke the sleeping tiger of the new Cold War," says Matthews, "what Russia's doing, what Putin's doing. . . . And, yes, after the publication of Red Sparrow, I don't think I can travel to Moscow as a tourist. There would probably be some trouble at passport control."
"Putin, every day up to yesterday, I thank him silently in my prayers for being Putin. He wants to, in some ways, rebuild the majesty of the old Soviet Union. . . . He wants to stay in the game, he wants to be a spoiler."
Speaking of which, Matthews has been tracking the exploits of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, his weeks apparently holed up in the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo Airport, the asylum requests, and, yes, the Putin pronouncements. "I don't know this for a fact, this is all inference," he says, "but through my intelligence-officer optic, Snowden was drained, and his laptops were downloaded, either with or without his permission or knowledge, so that the Chinese and the Russians have everything he had. . . .
"And the fact that now the story is focusing on asylum, well, it's often what happens to a defector, or an intelligence source, whose information is now finite. He's burned bridges, he does not have continuing access to secrets. . . . He's been drained empty, and now he's a political liability."
Another of Matthews' passions is food. The CIA retiree has worked culinary authenticity into Red Sparrow, too. Each chapter of the book, which jumps from Moscow to Helsinki to Washington to Athens, ends with a recipe for a dish that was cooked and/or consumed in the preceding pages: Moscow Airport Cuban Sandwich, SVR Golubtsi, Pasta Alla Mollica (Anchovy Salad).
Read Matthews' mouthwatering descriptions, then try them out in the kitchen.
"That happened as I went along," says Matthews, who writes from early in the morning to midafternoon. "It wasn't something I planned to do. But I cook, and I also admire other books that describe food in detail - you know, what the characters are eating. And then I thought, to be a little provocative, I'd put an elliptical recipe at the end of each chapter. No oven temperatures or measurements, just the ingredients. . . .
"And half the people who have read the book like the recipes, and the other half absolutely hate them. But as long as people are talking about it, it's a good thing, right?"
Matthews' wife, Suzanne, is a CIA veteran as well. They met while stationed in Europe and became that rare agency beast, a "tandem couple," working together and working apart, but always with the same duty assignment, the same home base.
"We traveled and we had our assignments with our family - we have two daughters, we raised them living overseas," Matthews explains. And managed covert ops while the kids were off at school.
And now, as he kicks into a new career as an author, Suzanne is among the first to read his drafts - applying her own experience and expertise to Matthews' imaginings.
"My wife is a very harsh critic of my manuscript drafts," he says.
She also has to read Matthews' stabs at sex scenes - neatly pulled off in the tradition of Ian Fleming. "Suzanne got immediately nervous, saying, 'Oh, my God, your daughters are going to have to read this!' "
Indeed, Matthews' daughters, in their 20s, have read Red Sparrow. And they've already cast the movie for their dad - the book has been optioned by 20th Century Fox, with writer/producer Steven Zailian ( Schindler's List, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) reportedly on board for the adaptation.
"They want to have Ryan Gosling in the role of Nash," Matthews says.
"I personally really like Eva Green, the actress from Casino Royale. But my daughters have other suggestions, and my wife thinks the casting should be an unknown Russian beauty who can speak convincingly with a Russian accent."
Of course, it's a long way before a film is realized - if it ever is. But Matthews is already back at his keyboard, tapping out a follow-up to Red Sparrow, the further adventures of Nate and Dominika.
"Almost immediately after having completed the process with my editor at Scribner, I surprised myself by sitting down and starting to write, I guess what you could call a sequel," he says. "The same characters, and new adventures, new dangers.
"And I'm trying to keep the three S's in the new book: sex, spying, and sauces."
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @Steven_Rea. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.inquirer.com/onmovies.