Cover image of "The Matchmaker," a novel about a notorious East German spymaster

Over the past half-dozen years, Paul Vidich has emerged as a major new voice in the literature of espionage. He writes historical fiction, with each of the five books he has published to date solidly grounded in verifiable facts. A mole hunt in the CIA during the paranoid years of the Red Scare. A CIA operation in Cuba the year before its Revolution. The death of a CIA scientist during Project MKUltra, the Agency’s experiment with LSD. A KGB defector during the final months before Mikhail Gorbachev took the helm of the Soviet Union. And now, in The Matchmaker, a tense, brilliantly plotted venture into the divided city of Berlin in the weeks before the Wall came down. The story is loosely based on the career of the East German spymaster Markus Wolf.

The search for a body in a canal

It’s 1989. Anne Simpson works as an interpreter for the US Army in occupied West Berlin. She is married to an East German man, a piano-tuner who travels extensively throughout the region on call to temperamental musicians. But Stefan Kroehler is also an agent of East Germany’s Stasi. To Anne’s mounting horror, that truth begins to eke out when James Cooper turns up from the American Embassy to inform her that Stefan has gone missing. The police are dragging the Landwehr Canal between the Soviet and American sectors in search of his body.

The Matchmaker: A Spy in Berlin by Paul Vidich (2022) 250 pages ★★★★★ 

Photo of files of the Stasi, an agency in which the East German spymaster Markus Wolf was number 2.
From 1950 to 1990, the East German Staatssicherheitsdienst, known as the Stasi, collected surveillance reports on millions of the country’s citizens. They were stored in endless rows of files like these. Image: WIRED

Caught between the sides in a dangerous cold war

While the search for Stefan’s body proceeds, Anne receives a primer in the architecture of the German police services. Two men interrogate her, one from the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), West Germany’s intelligence service, the other from the BKA, the domestic police. Both suspect her of hiding a secret about Stefan. Although the Americans and the West Germans seem convinced Stefan is dead, the East Germans are not persuaded. And the CIA seeks to use the Stasi’s determination to locate Stefan as a way to lure Rudolf Kruger, the Stasi’s number two, into a trap for their own hidden reasons. Anne now comes under pressure from both sides—and she discovers she can trust no one in her increasingly fraught search for her wayward husband.

For the CIA and the German police, Kruger is the key. As James Cooper explains to Anne, it’s Kruger who had selected her as a target for Stefan to romance and marry as a route into the West. Kruger is the Matchmaker.

A passel of believable characters

Vidich adroitly reveals the contours of his characters as the action unfolds—and every one of them harbors secrets.

  • We get to know Anne Simpson, of course, as well as Stefan Kroehler (whatever his name might really be).
  • Three men in the CIA become involved in the tale: James Cooper and his boss, world-weary Dick Winslow, as well as Winslow’s boss in Langley, Deputy Director George Mueller. Mueller plays a role in Vidich’s novels similar to George Smiley’s in the work of John le Carré, popping up from time to time in large roles or small.
  • Two West German police officers, Inspector Erich Praeger of the BND, and Tomas Keller of the BKA, bedevil Anne with their suspicion that she herself may be involved in espionage for the Stasi.

But the central character of this novel is the Matchmaker himself, Rudolf Krueger. Vidich paints a picture of Kruger that is both disturbing and perfectly credible.

The KGB’s stepchild, the Stasi

For 40 years, from 1950 to 1990, the people of the East German state known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR, suffered under the thumb of what was then the world’s most pervasive and oppressive secret police agency. Known as the Stasi, the Staatssicherheitsdienst directly employed tens of thousands of officers and managed hundreds of thousands of informers. Over the course of its existence, the Stasi compiled files on more than two million East Germans and arrested 250,000 people as political prisoners.

For 34 of the agency’s 40 years, Markus Wolf (1923-2006) headed the Stasi’s foreign intelligence division, the number two position. Western intelligence knew him as “the man without a face” for his elusiveness. Wikipedia notes that “Western agencies did not know what the East German spy chief looked like until 1978, when he was photographed by . . . Sweden’s National Security Service, during a visit to Stockholm. Wolf was widely regarded as one of the most effective Communist spies of the century. Vidich uses him as the model for Rudolf Kruger, “the Matchmaker.” In fact, he did engineer uncounted numbers of “matches” with women in West Germany. He is the embodiment of what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”

Another reviewer’s view

In the February 13, 2022, New York Times Book Review, crime columnist Sarah Weinman gushed over Vidich’s writing. “There is a casual elegance to Vidich’s spy fiction,” she wrote. “a seeming effortlessness that belies his superior craftsmanship. Every plot point, character motivation and turn of phrase veers toward the understated, but they are never underwritten. ‘The Matchmaker’ is an ideal entrance to Vidich’s work, one that should compel new readers to plumb his backlist.” Amen to that.

About the author

Image of Paul Vidich, author of this novel about an East German spymaster
Paul Vidich. Image: Writer’s Bone

The Matchmaker is Paul Vidich’s fifth spy novel. According to his author website, Vidich “had a distinguished career in music and media at Time Warner, AOL, and Warner Music Group” prior to turning to writing. At Warner, “he was Executive Vice President in charge of global digital strategy. He was a member of the National Academies committee on The Impact of Copyright Policy on Innovation in the Digital Era and testified in Washington before rate hearings.He presently serves as an independent board director, angel investor, and advisor to Internet media companies in video and music. Vidich is a graduate of Wesleyan University where he was a Trustee and received a Distinguished Alumni Award, and The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the boards of directors of Poets and Writers, The New School for Social Research, and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.” Vidich lives in Manhattan.

For more reading     

This novel is one of The best mysteries and thrillers of 2022.

I’ve also reviewed the author’s first four spy novels, all of which are outstanding:

There’s an in-depth interview about this book with Paul Vidich on CrimeReads (March 6, 2020).

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