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Spies on the Brain

January 23, 2008

Well, not on the brain, exactly. More like on the reading docket. Last week’s best reads were books about British spying. One was fiction, Joanna Bournes’ debut romance The Spymaster’s Lady, and the other was non-fiction, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. Both haunt me; taken together, they leave an aftertaste of danger and suffering that lingers.

The Spymaster’s Lady tells the story of two spies on either side of the Napoleonic Wars: Annique, who has been spying for the French since her childhood during the Revolution, and Robert Grey, a long-time member of British intelligence. They meet in prison, and when Annique engineers her escape, she takes Grey and his companion Adrian with her. Beyond that, I dare say nothing; the story so is full of twists and turns that saying even a little more will give too much away.

As the subtitle suggest, A Life in Secrets tells the tale of Vera Atkins, who worked during World War II in the F (France) section of SOE (Special Operations Executive), the intelligence agency commissioned by Churchill to disrupt the Nazis in Europe. Atkins’ work involved recruiting and training agents, many of them women, for dangerous work in occupied France. After the war was over, Atkins, through arduous and painstaking work, discovered the fates of the 100 agents who were reported missing, presumed dead.

The book is beautifully structured, leaving chronology behind to peel away layers of meaning until the final days of the missing agents are revealed, By holding off the sadness and horror until nearly the end, Helm kept me from distancing myself. I think that’s why the story sticks with me.

Both books are highiy recommended.

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