Hitler has begun his march across Europe, and the United States and England are locked in denial. It’s 1939, just at the dawn of the intelligence era in U.S. politics. A 22-year-old Jack Kennedy, restless and very ill, is preparing to travel through Europe gathering research for his senior thesis. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of a minority of politicians who see the deadly war with Germany looming, enlists the young traveler to keep his eyes and ears open to discover the source of a fund of German money that’s entering the United States; Hitler’s trying to buy the American election, defeat FDR and seat an isolationist in the White House.

Like where this is going so far? That’s just the tip of the iceberg in the riveting Jack 1939, Francine Mathews’s latest spy thriller. Mathews, who’s had spy training and investigative experience as a CIA intelligence analyst, has effectively combined her knowledge of the politics and personalities of that era with a slam-bang plot of espionage and drama.

Francine Mathews has effectively combined her knowledge of the politics and personalities of 1939 with a slam-bang plot of espionage and drama.

The author creates a dramatic, unusual picture of young Jack, ill to near death with an as-yet unnamed disease that sends him to the Mayo Clinic and through the care of countless medicos. He’s intelligent, curious, irresistible to women, volatile and desperate—with “the fog called boredom or death hovering just over his left shoulder.” Riding on the Kennedy family reputation as pleasure-seeking social climbers, he’s able to close in on the seats of Nazi power without initially being counted a threat.

Filled with memorable characters both fictional and historical, Mathews provides an edge-of-the-seat journey, filled with haunting images that readers won’t soon forget. On the one hand, Jack must deal with his own father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., Ambassador to England and an ardent isolationist with tunnel vision. On the other, he must deal with “the Spider,” a Nazi thug intent on seeing Jack permanently among the missing. Mathews presents a rogue’s gallery of real historical figures, drawn with color and imagination, including the canny Roosevelt, a turtle-backed J. Edgar Hoover and the hard-drinking Winston Churchill, all poised at the brink of devastating war. The author draws on her knowledge of the Kennedys for an astonishing take on private scenes she imagines among them.

Aficionados of espionage fiction, history, the Kennedy family, World War II and seat-of-the-pants excitement will devour this book, a must-read story that stands out from the pack. It’ll make you want to turn back to your history books once again.

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