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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Francine Mathews, whose novel The Cutout is the first major espionage novel of the millennium, has an unusual and impressive résumé. Her literary credentials include the Merry Folger mysteries Death in a Mood Indigo) and a pseudonymous series of detective stories featuring Jane Austen Jane and the Wandering Eye). Her nonliterary credentials include a four-year stint as an intelligence analyst for the CIA, an experience that lends The Cutout its aura of unmistakable authority.
The heroine of The Cutout is intelligence analyst Caroline Carmichael. Two and a half years before the narrative begins, Caroline lost her husband -- fellow CIA operative Eric Carmichael -- to a midair explosion engineered by 30 April, an Eastern European terrorist organization led by Mlan Krucevic, a Croatian fanatic who has devoted his life to the ethnic cleansing of Europe. In the years since Eric's death, Caroline has become an expert on the history, motives, and methods of 30 April. Her expertise, which borders on the obsessive, leads to her involvement in the labyrinthine drama that dominates the novel.
The narrative opens in present-day Berlin. Sophie Payne, first female vice president of the United States, has just given an inflammatory speech when a bomb goes off in front of the Brandenburg Gate, leaving 28 bystanders dead. In the ensuing chaos, terrorists disguised as medical technicians kidnap the vice president. A videotape eventually reveals that one of the kidnappers -- the apparent leader -- is Eric Carmichael, risen miraculously from the dead.
Shortly afterward, 30 April assumes responsibility for the incident. Krucevic reveals that Payne has been infected with a lethal strain of anthrax and will die unless American president Jack Bigelow agrees to certain conditions. Should Bigelow agree, 30 April will be free to pursue an agenda aimed at destabilizing Central Europe, while simultaneously paving the way for a genocidal experiment. Against this chaotic backdrop, Caroline flies to Europe with a select group of agents, determined to locate the stricken Sophie Payne and to learn the truth about Eric's role in a meticulously planned conspiracy.
Mathews's portrait of the American intelligence community is credible and compelling, and her characters embody the human cost of life in the shadow world of modern espionage. As The Cutout moves across a bleak international landscape -- from Berlin to Hungary to the killing grounds of Bosnia -- Mathews paints a precise, sometime heartbreaking portrait of a world beset by savagery, fanaticism, and religious and racial intolerance. The result is an intelligent, morally engaged thriller by a genuinely gifted writer. I look forward to hearing from her again.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).