FDR recruits a young Jack Kennedy to do some sleuthing in Europe on the eve of World War II.
It’s early 1939. Jack is 21, overshadowed by older brother Joe and racked by an undiagnosed disease, but Roosevelt sees past all that because he intuits that Jack is a nonconformist and risk-taker. The president has decided to run for a third term. What concerns him is a German network steering money to Democratic clubhouses in hopes of electing an isolationist. Jack must find out how it operates; as son of the ambassador to London, he will have all the access he needs. The premise is different enough from Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to be workable, and Mathews has carefully researched the period, but her portrait of Jack comes up short. She captures the charming ladies’ man, the romantic hero indifferent to death, but there’s little sign of his questing intelligence; Jack’s initial reason for traveling is to research his Harvard senior thesis (eventually his first book, Why England Slept). His fellow travelers on the trans-Atlantic crossing include Diana Playfair, an English femme fatale and Fascist sympathizer, and the White Spider, a psychopathic killer working for Gestapo chief Heydrich. We’ve already seen the Spider knife to death his first two victims, a sign that melodramatic cheap thrills will trump geopolitical intrigue. Jack will fall big time for Diana as they crisscross Europe. They will make furious love, but can she be trusted, especially after Heydrich snaps her up? Jack sends Morse code messages to FDR. He’ll be in plenty of tight spots, though there’s usually backup, and he gets to use his Luger. What hurts Jack most is his discovery that his dad is one of the network’s secret donors; their confrontation gets physical.
A bold concept, poorly executed by this veteran thriller writer (Blown, 2005, etc.).