Imagine young Jack Kennedy as a spy, commandeered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to innocuously roam Europe and uncover nefarious warmongering plots. Imagine Francine Mathews re-envisioning and fictionalizing Jack’s movements from New York to London to Rome to Val d’Isere to Danzig to Moscow to Prague to Warsaw and back. Jack Kennedy really did travel to all those places in 1939, doing research about the build-up toward war and the naïve rationalizations of those who thought war could be avoided. The result was his Harvard senior thesis, published in 1940 and titled Why England Slept. Imagine Francine Mathews taking the skeleton outline of his actual travels and weaving them into a fictional thriller with Jack as a spy at the center of all the action. The nail-biting result? Jack 1939.
Mathews freely acknowledges that the tale is wholly a work of fiction, yet she clearly did a lot of research before writing her novel. She is well-versed in the background information about what was happening in Europe as the Nazis annexed more and more territory. She also has collated the details of Kennedy family enigmas, such as Jack’s ill health, his mother’s fetishes, and the often tense interactions with his father and his brother Joe. Her novel includes such details as confrontations between Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover, Roosevelt’s distrust of his ambassador to England, the elder Joe Kennedy, and the undiplomatic tensions between Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
Jack 1939 begins when Roosevelt asks young Jack to use his research travels as cover while investigating rumors. Are the Germans infusing the American electoral process with money in order to buy pacifists? Are the Germans intent on stopping Roosevelt from seeking a third term? Are the Germans instead trying to replace the president with a Democratic isolationist? Roosevelt doesn’t say so while recruiting his new-found spy, but is it possible that Jack’s father, a man who insists that war is never good for commerce and who regularly does business with Nazi leaders, is at the heart of the money-laundering scheme? Is this the unspoken reason why Roosevelt recruits the Kennedy second son?
You’ll have to read Jack 1939 to find out all the answers. As Jack weaves his way back and forth across the European continent, he uncovers multiple sub-plots and pre-war complications. He befriends a glamorous socialite who obviously is a spy. But loyal to whom? Both Jack and Diana are stalked by a vicious Nazi killer nicknamed the White Spider who carves a characteristic symbol into his victim’s flesh. Often Jack finds himself in precarious and highly hazardous situations when he must be rescued by an assortment of unlikely saviors, including under-cover and unacknowledged British spies, various ambassadorial liaisons, and even secret Czechoslovakian freedom fighters.
Jack, himself, is resourceful too. Reckless, gutsy, determined to prove his manhood, unswervingly brave, he manages to extricate himself from some implausibly dangerous situations. Every page of this thriller is filled with action, with tension, with both mental and physical gyrations. I loved Jack 1939 and recommend it highly. It’s a genuine page-turner. Any reader who enjoys spy thrillers will thoroughly relish this imagined reconstruction of Jack Kennedy’s past. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Francine Mathews: The Alibi Club; Blown; Cutout; Death in a Cold Hard Light; Death in a Mood Indigo; Death in Rough Water; Death in the Off-Season; The Secret Agent; Too Bad to Die; An Inspector Calls.