I'm going a little crazy here. I'll explain why at the end. No peeking, though.
Mystery readers are familiar with Francine Mathews, who has been building a steadily increasing fan base with her Merry Folger novels. THE CUTOUT isn't one of them. Mathews is a former CIA intelligence analyst and, with THE CUTOUT, has chosen to write what she knows. And I will tell you, THE CUTOUT is not your standard espionage thriller. If this had been published under an unknown name, I would have assumed that it was a collaboration between Tom Clancy and John LeCarre, with the strengths of both gentlemen accentuated and magnified. Yeah. It's that good.
Starting this book just before going to bed at night is like ducking into your local coffee shop for a double latte nightcap. It begins with the daring and brilliant kidnapping of the Vice President by 30 April, a terrorist group that has been under observation by the CIA for several years. CIA analyst Caroline Carmichael, the agency's expert on 30 April, is brought in immediately after the kidnapping. Her involvement is not simply because of her expertise, however. A close examination of the film of the kidnapping reveals that the man coordinating the kidnapping is Caroline's husband Eric. Eric, himself a CIA agent, was believed to have been killed by 30 April over two years previously. What is he doing alive and working with 30 April 30? And what does 30 April want with the Vice President?
Mathews would have done quite well with a simple connect-the-dots narrative resulting in an instant airport bestseller. But THE CUTOUT is so much more than that. Through intermittent flashbacks, the reader learns about Caroline's childhood, her complicated relationship with Eric, and what led her to her position as an intelligence analyst. The reader is also given a nickel tour of some of the CIA's bells and whistles (note to Santa Claus --- for next Christmas, Joey wants Desist). What gives THE CUTOUT life, ultimately, is the way in which Mathews so skillfully combines the secret agent pyrotechnics with the people behind them. The reader, even during the most suspenseful moments of THE CUTOUT (which come at the rate of about one per page), is never permitted to forget the personalities involved here. As a result, what happens is never as important as who it happens to. An amazing feat.
I hope that Mathews has not exhausted her wealth of agency tales with THE CUTOUT. Warner already has the film rights. If the film is half as good as the book, it'll be a blockbuster. Oh yeah --- what's driving me crazy about THE CUTOUT is this: before THE CUTOUT was submitted for publication, Mathews ran it past the CIA Publications Review Board, which asked her to change one word. What is driving me crazy is that I have to know what that word was. Can you guess?
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 30, 2001