The 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).
Former CIA analyst Francine Mathews (aka Stephanie Barron) uses her expertise to come up with the hottest read of the season. The book is intense and has an ending that will leave you screaming for more.
A high-action thriller.
Christian Science Monitor
Fascinating, harrowing, page-flipping intrigue ... A vivid tale of seduction, betrayal,revenge, and international political intrigue.
Fast moving. Mathews has no shortage of imagination.
Thrills you with the CIA, a kidnapping and the hunt. Starts with a bang.
A brilliantly intelligent and thrilling read.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The kidnapping of the U.S. vice-president, Sophie Payne, sets off a firestorm of CIA intelligence and rescue activity in this first espionage thriller by Mathews, the popular author of the Merry Folger mystery series. After making a controversial speech in Berlin, Payne is abducted by a fringe terrorist group known as 30 April. For CIA operative and protagonist Caroline Carmichael, the kidnapping becomes more complicated when her husband (and associate), Eric, is spotted in the video footage of the abduction, leading her boss to think that he may have turned traitor on his CIA colleagues. Carmichael is chosen to head up the clandestine rescue operation because of her knowledge of the terrorist leader, but the time window for Payne's rescue is reduced considerably when her captors inject the v-p with a deadly anthrax strain. Carmichael sprints to Budapest and then Bosnia, all the while trying to balance her love for her husband with her knowledge of his duplicitous and often deadly tactics. Mathews, a former CIA intelligence analyst, keeps the action moving at a sprightly pace, and her presentation of espionage and CIA tactics is impeccable. But the secondary characters from Eastern Europe are a faceless bunch, and the author focuses so intently on the espionage activity that she ignores the reaction of the world at large to the kidnapping, although she does toss in an intriguing subplot dealing with the possible involvement of the German chancellor in the crime. Mathews makes up for these small flaws by avoiding an obvious formula ending, allowing the final riveting rescue attempt in an abandoned underground concentration camp to end on an unlikely note. It remains to be seen whether Merry Folger readers will make the genre leap with Mathews, but fans of spy thrillers should be alerted to this promising debut. Major ad/promo. (Jan. 30) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A high-action thriller.”
— USA Today
“Fascinating, harrowing, page-flipping intrigue ... A vivid tale of seduction, betrayal,revenge, and international political intrigue.”
— The Christian Science Monitor
“Fast moving. Mathews has no shortage of imagination.”
“Thrills you with the CIA, a kidnapping and the hunt. Starts with a bang.”
— The Denver Post
“A brilliantly intelligent and thrilling read.”
— Liz Smith, Newsday
And coming soon in hardcover from Bantam Books:
The Secret Agent
By Francine Mathews
Read an Excerpt
Berlin, 12:03 p.m.
She was a small woman; the press had always made much of that. On this crisp November morning in the last days of a bloody century, she stood tiptoe on a platform designed to lift her within sight of the crowd. They were a polyglot mass — threadbare German students, Central Europeans, a smattering of American tourists. A few Turks holding blood-red placards were shadowed, of course, by the ubiquitous security detail of the new regime. After twenty-four hours in Berlin, Sophie Payne had grown accustomed to the presence of riot police.
The international press corps jostled her audience freely, cameras held high like religious icons. The new German chancellor had not yet banned the media. Just across Pariser Platz, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, sat a tangle of television vans and satellite dishes. Sophie surveyed them from her podium and understood that she was making history. The first American Vice President to descend upon the new German capital of Berlin, she had appeared at a troubled time. The people gathered in the square expected her to deliver an American message — the promise of solidarity in struggle. Or perhaps redemption?
She had come to Berlin at the request of her President, Jack Bigelow, to inaugurate a foothold in the capital. Behind her, to the rear of the seats held down by the German foreign minister and the U.S. ambassador, the new embassy rose like an operatic set. Before it, Sophie Payne might have been a marionette, Judy playing without Punch, an official government doll.
The U.S. embassy’s design had been fiercely debated for years. The trick, it seemed, was to avoid all visual reference to Berlin’s twentieth century — that unfortunate period of persistent guilt and klaxons in the night. Comparison with the present regime might prove unfortunate. But neither was the nineteenth century entirely acceptable; that had produced Bismarck, after all, and the march toward German militarism. The State Department planners had settled at last on a postmodernist compromise: a smooth, three-storied expanse of limestone corniced like a Chippendale highboy.
It might, Sophie thought, have been a corporate headquarters. It made no statement of any kind. That was probably her job today, too.
But in the last thirty-six hours she had read the obscene graffiti scrawled on the new Holocaust memorial. She had met with third-generation Turkish “guest workers” — gastarbeiters — about to be repatriated to a country they had never seen. She had even dined with the new chancellor, Fritz Voekl, and applauded politely when he spoke of the rebirth of German greatness. Then she had lain sleepless far into the night, remembering her parents. And decided that a statement must be made.
Now she set aside her carefully crafted speech and adjusted the mike. “Meine Damen und Herren.”
In the pause that followed her amplified words, Sophie distinctly heard a child wailing. She drew breath and gripped the podium.
“We come here today to celebrate a new capital for a new century,” she said. That was innocuous enough; it might have been drawn from the sanitized pages she had just discarded.
“We celebrate, too, the dedication and sacrifice of generations of men and women, on both sides of the Atlantic, who committed their lives to the defeat of Communism.” Nothing to argue with there — nothing that might excite the black-clad police or their waiting truncheons.
“But the fact that we do so today in the city of Berlin is worthy of particular attention,” she continued. “The capital of Germany’s past as well as her future, Berlin can never be wholly reborn. It carries its history in every stone of its streets. For Berlin witnessed Hitler’s tyranny and horror, and Berlin paid for its sins in blood. As we dedicate this embassy, let us commit ourselves to one proposition: that never again will this nation submit to dictatorship. Never again will it shut its doors to any race. Berlin must be the capital for all Germany’s people.”
There was a tremendous roar — spontaneous, uplifting, and utterly foolhardy — from the crowd in the middle of Pariser Platz. A bearded figure waved his placard, chanting in a torrent of Turkish; he was followed by others, scattered throughout the square, and in an instant the police truncheons descended in a savage arc. Someone screamed. Sophie took a step back from the podium; she saw a woman crumple under the feet of the crowd.
Nell Forsyte, her Secret Service agent, was instantly at her side. “Say thank you and get out,” Nell muttered.
Sophie reached for the microphone. And before the sound of the blast ripped through the cries swelling from Pariser Platz, she felt something — a vibration in the wooden platform beneath her feet, as though the old square sighed once before giving up its ghost. Then the Brandenburg Gate bloomed like a monstrous stone flower and the screaming began — a thin, high shriek piercing the chaos. A wave of red light boiled toward the podium where she stood, paralyzed, and she thought, Good God. It’s a bomb. Did I do that?
Nell Forsyte flung Sophie to the platform like a rag doll and lay heavily on her back, a human shield shouting unintelligible orders. Somewhere quite close, a man cried out in French. Glass shattered as the shock wave slammed outward; the plate-glass windows of the luxury hotels buckled, the casements of a dozen tour buses popped like caramelized sugar. And then, with all the violence of a Wagnerian chorus, the massive glass dome of the nearby Reichstag splintered and crashed inward.
The chaos suspended thought and feeling. For an instant, Sophie breathed outside of time.
“You okay?” Nell demanded hoarsely in her ear.
She nodded, and her forehead struck the wooden platform. “Get off my back, Nell. You’re killing me.”
“I’d prefer to get up.”
The Secret Service agent ignored her, but Sophie felt a slight shifting in the woman’s weight; Nell was craning her neck to scan the square. Sophie had a momentary vision of a pile of dignitaries — American, German — all crushed beneath their respective security details. She giggled. It was an ugly sound, halfway between a sob and a gasp. If I could just get up, I’d feel better. More in control. She dug an elbow into Nell’s ribs.
The agent grunted. “When I count to three, stand up and face the embassy. I’ll cover your back.”
“Shouldn’t we crawl?”
“Too much glass.”
Nell gave the count and heaved Sophie to her feet. Only then did the Vice President notice that she’d lost a shoe. All around her, men and women lay on the platform amid splatters of blood, a hail of glass. The podium, Sophie realized, had miraculously shielded her from shrapnel. A tense ring of German security men surrounded the foreign minister; he sprawled motionless amid a heap of splintered chairs. Somebody — the embassy doctor, Sophie thought — was tearing open his shirt.
At the right side of the platform, maybe a yard from where she stood, a dark-skinned scowling man drew a machine gun from his coat and aimed it at Sophie.
She stared at him, fascinated.
Then Nell’s pistol popped and the man’s left eye welled crimson. He reeled like a drunk, his gun discharging in the air.
This time, Nell tackled her at the knees.
The medevac helicopter circled over Pariser Platz twice, ignoring the frantic signal of an ambulance crew from the rubble below. There was nowhere to land; survivors trampled the wounded underfoot, and the main exits to the Tiergarten and Unter den Linden were choked with tumbled stone and rescue vehicles. The chopper pilot veered sharply left and hovered over the roof of the embassy. Normally, a marine guard would have been posted there for the duration of the Vice President’s speech, but the soldiers had probably rushed below in the first seconds after the explosion. The roof was empty. The pilot found the bull’s-eye of the landing pad and set down the craft.
A two-man team scuttled out of the chopper, backs bent under the wind of the blades. They rolled a white-sheeted gurney between them. A third man — blond-haired, black-jacketed — crouched in the craft’s open doorway. He covered the team with an automatic rifle until they reached the rooftop door. There, one of the men drew a snub-nosed submachine gun from his white lab coat and fired at the communications antennae bolted to the embassy roof. Then he blew the lock off the door.
A security alarm blared immediately. It was drowned in the clamor of Pariser Platz.
The blond-haired man raised his gun and glanced over his shoulder at the helicopter pilot. “They’re in. Give them three minutes.” He scanned the rooftop, the heating ducts and the forest of defunct antennae. Brand-new, state-of-the-art listening posts, all shot to hell in seconds. The CIA techies had probably been there for weeks installing them.
The helicopter rotors whined, and the man in the black jacket steadied himself against the door frame as the craft lifted into the air. The screams below seemed hardly to affect him. He scanned the square like a hawk, waiting for the moment to dive.
Machine-gun fire. It was the sound of her recurring nightmare — a dream about execution and a firing squad. Sophie struggled in Nell’s grip, choking on the wave of oily smoke that had flooded Pariser Platz. It was impossible to see much — only the blank wall of the embassy looming. The agent lifted her under the armpits like a child.
“We’ve got to get inside.” Nell thrust Sophie toward the dignitaries’ chairs, vacant now as a theater on a bad opening night, shards of glass sparkling everywhere. Sophie could feel Nell’s urgency nipping at her heels.
A marine guard thrust open the shattered main door. Then he fell, slack-mouthed and startled, dead at Sophie’s feet. Nell’s arm came up beside her. The agent fired at something in the shadows of the entryway. And then, with a sound like a punctured tire, Nell dropped to her knees. There had been no report from another gun. Someone inside the embassy had a silencer.
A clatter of footsteps, a gurney being lifted over the marine guard’s corpse. Blood was spreading rapidly across the dark blue wool of Nell’s suit. A rescue team in white coats surged toward Sophie, and she sank down beside the agent with a feeling of relief. Nell grabbed Sophie’s waist with one arm and with the other raised her gun. As Sophie watched, a bullet struck the agent square in the forehead and she slumped over, rage still blazing in her eyes.
Sophie was cradling her, a dragging, bleeding weight, and screaming Nell, Nell, when they seized her from behind. Then night fell like the guttering of a candle flame.
“Get out of the way!”
The man at the head of the gurney shouted in German to the bewildered survivors at the edge of the platform. “We need room! Move it!”
The medevac helicopter hovered two hundred yards above Pariser Platz, a gurney line descending from the motorized reel. It took only seconds for the two men below to attach the stretcher. It rose slowly, smoothly, with its white-sheeted burden. A figure appeared through the swirling maelstrom of smoke — black leather jacket, blond head. He reached for the stretcher, steadied it, and swung it carefully inside.
A German newsman, his face smeared with soot, had his lens trained firmly on the chopper. Where it gripped the video cam, his right hand was slick with blood. “Who’s on the stretcher?” he demanded.
The gurney team ignored him.
The newsman swung his camera into the face of one of the medical techs. Livid with anger, the man shoved it aside. The reporter dropped the camera with a cry of pain and clutched his wounded hand.
Shedding their white coats, now stained with blood and dust, the two men pushed through the crowd. An ambulance idled at the edge of the Tiergarten, strangely unresponsive to the hundreds of wounded in the square. They made for it at a run.
Arlington, 7 a.m.
Caroline Carmichael balanced her coffee cup — an oversized piece of Italian pottery with Deruta stamped on the bottom — between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Her gaze was fixed on the dull blue wing of a jay carping beyond her window. She may have seen the bird — may have recorded something of its petulance, the way its beak stabbed angrily at the sodden leaves. She may have acknowledged the rain streaming down into the defeated grass, and in some hollow of her mind determined which suit to wear to work; but for the moment she was content to sit nude beneath her oversized terry-cloth robe. It enfolded her like an ermine, a second skin. It had once belonged to Eric, and that alone made it precious.
The cotton loops smelled faintly of lemons. She closed her eyes and imagined him breathing.
Lemons. The groves of Cyprus, dry hillsides crackling with rosemary. Cyprus had come well before Budapest and was thus a place that Caroline could consider without flinching. Raw red wine and merciless sunlight, the sea a cool promise through the tumbled stones. She had bought the robe in a shop in Nicosia. He had worn it maybe four times. I’m not a robe kind of guy, he’d told her when she packed for home. Take it with you. Really.
And just what, Caroline wondered, was a robe kind of guy?
When Eric emerged from the shower, his hair a tousle of spikes and the night’s growth of beard a haze along the jaw, he rarely reached for a towel. The drops beading his skin evaporated in the Cyprus heat, while he stood lost in thought, eyes fixed on nothing. Caroline never asked where his mind went in such moments. She was too well acquainted with Eric’s demons — the fear that gripped him before certain meetings, the uncontrolled retching over the porcelain bowl.
Nicosia was bad. Budapest was worse.
She could have loved the craggy old city on the banks of the Danube were it not for the change in Eric. Some nights, working surveillance in the passenger seat beside him, she would lose herself in the spectacle of Buda Castle, floodlit and austere on its manicured slope. By day she plunged into the warren of Pest’s back streets, where the buildings’ grimy plaster facades, untouched as yet by the mania for renovation, hovered like the backdrop to a Bogart movie. Beneath the coal dust that penetrated every crevice of every shop, she found carved chests daubed with brilliant birds, embroidered linens, spurs once owned by a Magyar horseman. She fingered the cloth, stroked the splintered wood, and imagined a vast plain swept by wild herds. Later, when the incessant rains of March fell, she retired with a book to Gerbeaud’s, the city’s most venerable coffeehouse. She toyed with chocolate torte and eavesdropped on young Italian tourists.
Eric refused all refuge. He grew hollow-eyed from strain and restless nights; he spoke sharply when he spoke at all. When she referred to a time beyond Buda, he lost the thread of conversation. Always a creature of discipline, he became, if anything, an ascetic — forgoing sleep, the after-embassy drinks hour, even her body in the small hours of morning. The night meetings ended increasingly at dawn, long after she had closed her book and put out her light. She would awake early and dress for the embassy in silence, her husband an insensate stranger shrouded amid the sheets.
From the Paperback edition.