Forget diamonds. Hand grenades are a girl's best friend. Caroline, the heroine of Francine Mathews's "The Cutout," is an intellectual, a high priestess of reason, a master of disguises - a CIA analyst. She marries Eric, a crafty cowboy of an agent trying to penetrate one of the most brutal terrorist organizations on the planet.
When Eric dies in a plane explosion, purportedly at the hands of the terrorist group known as April 30, Caroline spends the next two years at the CIA's counterterrorism center tracking the group, anticipating its plans, and ruminating on how to stop it.
But April 30 strikes again - a vicious attack in Berlin in which the American vice president is taken hostage. Afterward, while reviewing tape of the event reeled in from the agency's ubiquitous satellites, Caroline discovers Eric is not dead. He's riding shotgun in the helicopter that sweeps the VP away.
Here's where the "cutout" comes in: Caroline is set up as what the agency calls a cutout - a pawn - to conceal the contact between her undercover husband and the respected brass who set him loose.
What follows is fascinating, harrowing, page-flipping intrigue. The couple is caught in a terrorist plot that's ensnared the entire European Continent.
The author, who once worked in the CIA's counterterrorism unit, brings us in from the cold with her debut of the new world of subterfuge. Smart, snappy women are replacing the skull and crossbones old boys' network that's reigned at the CIA for half a century. And lots of the old boys don't like it.
The stage is Central Europe, where the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent NATO brawls in the Balkans make way for far-right nationalist leaders who exploit centuries-old religious and racial myths. It's a world in which terrorist groups with their own political agendas employ the latest in biological weapons, small arms, and high-tech wizardry.
With obvious knowledge of the CIA's sources and methods, Mathews creates a vivid tale of seduction, betrayal, revenge, and international political intrigue.
Besides the rich, layered texture of history and current political events, Mathews also tackles the CIA's most damning dilemma: To penetrate terrorist groups, agents must join them and often commit despicable acts in order to prove their loyalty.
For example, Eric, clandestinely talking with his wife on the streets of Budapest, darts into a doorway, pulling her along. "I paid [Erzsebet Kiraly] to betray Mlan," he tells her. "I caused her death. A twenty-one-year-old girl. I owed her something, I think."
" 'Your life for hers. Our marriage.' Caroline's voice was lacerating. 'So was it worth it, Eric? Your payment in blood? Are you happy with the bargain?'
"His eyes were shuttered. 'Happiness was never the point, Mad Dog.'
" 'No. I see that now.' "
If anything, I haven't lived with Eric and Caroline long enough. Like a movie I have to see again to enjoy all the little details, I need more time with these characters. Sequel please!
Faye Bowers is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society