Her “Jack 1939” is most assuredly a work of fiction, but it takes skeins of history we all know well — Churchill’s England, Hitler’s Germany, Roosevelt’s White House, the rise of the Kennedy family fortunes — and ravels a hair-raising tale.
In it, John F. Kennedy is young Jack, a junior at Harvard languishing in the Mayo Clinic and eager to board the Queen Mary for a much-needed rest in England. His father, Joe Kennedy, is the ambassador to the Court of St. James; his father’s rival, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is angling for a third term; Hitler is busily cooking up a pact with Stalin; Himmler is madly devising the Final Solution; and war is in the air. But Jack is less driven by battle drums than a broken heart. The girl of his dreams has just thrown him over, and he is off to to Europe to stanch the wounds. Maybe even write his Harvard thesis. So far, all this is true. We’re in the comfortable zone of history.
The “what if” arrives in fairly credible guise: What if FDR, who always wanted a leg up on J. Edgar Hoover, decided to run his own reconnaissance missions in Europe? The president believes that Hitler is up to no good, that world war is inevitable, and he aims to put his own man on the ground to prove it. Enter Jack, ambling up Park Avenue to the Waldorf Astoria, the day before he embarks on the trip of his life.
“ ‘Mr. Kennedy?’ ”
“There were three of them. . . . They wore trench coats and snap-brim fedoras, and although they bore no relation to one another, their faces had a blunt-featured sameness. . . . ‘We’re President Roosevelt’s bodyguards. He wants to see you.’ ”
Jack is hustled off to a secret meeting on the president’s Pullman train, which awaits on a private track under the bowels of the Waldorf. It turns out FDR has been keeping an eye on him for some time, figuring that a smart boy with a failing body will have little to lose in a risky bargain. FDR gives him a mission, a special code, a telegraph machine, and sends him out to learn what he can. “They’ll never expect you to be my man in Europe,” the great man tells him.
I know, I know. It’s an iffy “what if.” But before we can say, “Whatever happened to Wild Bill Donovan?,” we’re swept into the conceit, hoping for a diabolical labyrinth worthy of le Carre; a cunning caper reminiscent of Ludlum. What we find instead is a cross between Jane Austen and Dashiell Hammett.
“And then she materialized beside him: cool and porcelain-faced, knees bound in a pencil skirt. Her fur was high-collared and ended abruptly at the waist. Her hat swept like a dove’s wing over one cheek. It made her seem sly and seductive and unreachable as she stared thoughtfully at the pier. Where was her farewell party? Like Jack, she did not bother to wave. Like Jack, she crossed her arms and leaned on the rail, one shoulder grazing his. Her mouth was painted crimson. An unlit cigarette dangled from her lip.” Mind you, the Hammett-Austen routine is no coincidence. Mathews has cut her teeth on a drove of mysteries that purposefully conjure Dashiell and Jane.