Francine Mathews writes espionage thrillers as good as the best say John le Carré or Robert Ludlum. And she does so because she knows what she's talking about. She jumped, rappelled, and shot her way "with a certain shade of lipstick in her ammo belt" through the CIA's boot camp. She became an analyst at the agency's Counterterrorism Center, where cheek by jowl with the old boy network from Harvard and Yale she performed tedious spade work on the Pan Am 103 bombing investigation. She knows a lot about the world's worst people.
But one thing in her work is decidedly different from the spy lore of the lords: The women in Mathews's books aren't damsels in distress or vulnerable victims. Her women lead. They're smart, courageous, and powerful.
The heroine in her newest novel, "The Secret Agent," for example, is the brilliant, powerful fund-market manager Stefani Fogg. She's become so successful that she's bored out of her mind.
Enter Oliver Krane, the CEO of a worldwide risk management company a man who "tracked arms shipments through gray networks. He could listen to lovemaking at a distance of 2,000 miles, and sometimes did. Give him 36 hours, and Oliver Krane could detail every secret your competitors had purchased from your most loyal employees, and exactly how much they had paid for them."
Krane offers Stefani a job she can't refuse: to employ her forensic accounting skills as a secret agent to unravel a claim that washed-up world-class skier Max Roderick has against the Thai government.
Max's grandfather, Jack Roderick, had been a "secret agent" for the US government in Thailand. He lived a double life a respectable silk businessman by day and a spy runner by night.
Jack mysteriously vanished in 1967, during the height of the Vietnam war. The Thai government subsequently took over his carved teak house with the priceless treasures he'd collected over the years and turned it into a museum.
Fast forward to the present when a long overlooked will is found. Jack Roderick had left his legacy to his heirs, and now his grandson Max wants to claim his inheritance and find out what really happened to his grandfather.
In her second espionage thriller, Mathews successfully spins a tale of international intrigue, blending fact with fiction. Writing from her expertise as a CIA analyst, she bases this book on the true story of Jim Thompson, known as the "Legendary American" of Thailand, who mysteriously disappeared in 1967.
Her heroine, Stefani Fogg, travels from New York City to the lochs in Northern Scotland to the ski pistes of the Alps and the khlongs and mountains of Thailand to unravel this complicated tale.
It involves high finance, high living, and high jinks of all kinds. There's politics, war, murder, history, and romance with a good dose of betrayal and suspense.
Beyond that slick excitement, though, lie subplots full of insight into other cultures, particularly Asia. And her sensitive portrayal of Jack Roderick's difficult life reflects any one of the handful of former CIA officers writing books of discontent today.
"[Jack] was growing increasingly tired of the role," she writes. "The new recruits reminded him of the man he had once been: idealistic, engaged, unquestioning. Less tired, purer. Certain of his goals and motives behind them. Now he collected his thoughts and focused on the bewildered young face opposite."
Whatever happened to Jim Thompson we may never know. But the way Mathews ties up Jack Roderick's life with Max Roderick and Stefani Fogg is utterly fascinating.
Faye Bowers is a reporter in the Monitor's Washington, D.C., bureau.