The World War II era is fertile soil for writers of crime fiction, and Francine Mathews follows hard on the heels of her exceptional Jack 1939 (2012) with a crackerjack espionage thriller, Too Bad to Die, both set in that time. Mathews, a former intelligence analyst for the CIA, knows all the tricks of the trade, and her novel imagines the words and actions of bona fide participants in one of the seminal events of that war—the Tehran Conference in 1943, where Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin come together to plan their final move against Nazi Germany, the invasion of Europe. The three Allied leaders are portrayed as multilayered personalities weighing their own countries’ post-war welfare against the cooperation needed at this crucial moment to win the war.
Mathews brings in yet another real-life figure from that era, the soon-to-be-famous author Ian Fleming, and imagines how he might have participated in the dangerous, game-changing meeting, as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
In real life, Fleming was an assistant to Britain’s director of naval intelligence; in Too Bad to Die, he gets to play a down-and-dirty role in Tehran after he uncovers a plot to assassinate all three Allied leaders at the conference. He must discover the identity of the assassin, a mastermind known only as the Fencer, as clues are sent to him from Britain via Alan Turing’s famed Enigma machine.
Young Fleming’s imagined early years at Eton and Sandhurst are played out in the shadow of his idol and father, Val, who died a hero during World War I, and in the details of Ian’s friendship with American and schoolmate Michael Hudson. There’s an imaginative take on how the character of James Bond takes shape in Fleming’s mind as he races against time to intercept the killer, aided—or perhaps impeded—by two women, a comely British Signals operator and a Soviet spy named Siranoush, who may or may not be leading him to his death.
We’re right behind Fleming as he races against time to discover the Fencer’s identity. The book is great sport for lovers of quick-fire espionage yarns, filtered through the lens of one of the most pivotal eras in world history. And if you haven’t figured out the identity of the would-be assassin pretty early on, you need to turn in your detective badge.