RogerBW's Blog

The Cutout, Francine Mathews 17 June 2015

2001 espionage thriller. Caroline Carmichael, CIA intelligence analyst, thought she'd lost her husband in a plane bombing. Until he showed up in a photo of the people who had just kidnapped the Vice-President of the USA during a terrorist attack in Berlin.

Caroline Carmichael is trained in Operations, and works in the Counterterrorism Center, largely on the mid-air bombing of a passenger aircraft. Francine Mathews, on the other hand, "spent four years as an intelligence analyst for the CIA, where she was trained in Operations and served a brief stint in the Counterterrorism Center assisting the investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103". A little close to home, perhaps?

Certainly the priorities of the CIA, as presented here, are firmly rooted in American assumptions about the future of the world in the 1990s. There is a brief mention of Osama bin Laden (the book came out in October of 2001, oops), but a major concern here is a resurgent governmental fascist element in Germany and points east which is using the fear of Islamic takeover, and immigration in general, as a bogeyman to push through its authoritarian policies. Phew, good thing that could never happen in America. (Or Britain. I'm an equal-opportunity cynic.)

So it has to be read in the context of the times in which it was written; I do that with any book, as I think it's only fair to them. The writing is nonetheless laboured at times, feeling as though the author is trying just that bit too hard:

The dirt walls of the tunnel were crudely carved and narrow. She crawled on her knees toward an uncertain end, a passage that could be blocked, a possible cave-in. She had no flashlight; the first law of infiltration is never tell them you're coming. The dark was so profound that Caroline was disoriented; for a time she had no idea whether the passage was in fact rising or whether she was falling with infinite slowness toward the center of the earth. She closed her eyes and crawled on.

and one particular point of the plot screams out an obvious connection between two nasty people some half the book before anyone notices its significance. And I really can't see any German leader, violently anti-immigrant or not, naming his personal bully squad the Volks(s)turm.

But the geopolitics are really background: has Caroline's husband Eric really turned his coat and joined the "30 April" terrorist group? And how will it be possible to find out? Caroline has to go into the field, in Berlin and Budapest, and juggle the Agency's internal politics, her own uncertainty about Eric's loyalties, and the extremely dangerous people among whom they're operating. And the site of an Ustašhe death camp, forgotten for more than half a century, may be disturbingly relevant.

Unsurprisingly, it's the intelligence analysis that works best. A politician does something obstructive: well, OK, that particular plan can't be used any more, but why did he suddenly turn obstructive, and who has burned political capital in getting him to take this attitude? And why? That's good stuff, and I could have used more of it, and less running around exotic cities. The leader of 30 April is more of a James Bond-style cackling supervillain than I really like to see in a book that's trying to be serious.

A mildly enjoyable book should it come your way, but certainly not worth seeking out. Followed by Blown; the ending here leaves plenty unresolved.

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