Rachel Hore is one of my favourite go-to authors when I want well-written, thoughtful escapism. Her latest is A Beautiful Spy, a pre-Second World War spy story based on a real case involving the infiltration of a communist spy cell. At a garden party in the summer of 1928, Minnie Gray is bored. She’s there with her mother who is trying to fix up her up with another young man, when she notices a striking young woman. When the enigmatic Miss Pyle asks if Minnie would consider working for the government, Minnie recognises a chance to escape her mother’s suffocating attention and her boring job at the Automobile Association.
Minnie meets Captain Max Knight, ‘M’, and is recruited as a member of British Intelligence’s M Section with the code name M/12. She moves to London, finds a flat and a part-time secretarial job. Her first task is to attend meetings of the local Friends of the Soviet Union group and volunteer to help. Her new life must be kept a secret from her Tory-supporting family and boyfriend, Raymond.
What follows is Minnie’s progressive immersion in the British Communist Party. Always a self-reliant person, Minnie begins to struggle with the secrecy. Feeling she belongs nowhere, living her life in disconnected bubbles of people who are unaware of each other, she seeks out new friends at a hockey club that she can be herself with. Minnie’s career as a spy has a up and down trajectory, most of the time nothing happens, and she feels she is failing her bosses. But all the time she is cementing her reputation as a reliable, trustworthy secretary and this pays off when she is asked to take secret money to communist supporters in India. Minnie meticulously keeps records, writes reports for M and tries to be nosy while seeming disinterested. As the tension increases and she feels watched, the danger she is risking becomes real and not a game.
Hore added her own imagination to the factual story of real-life spy Olga Gray who spied for Maxwell Knight of British Intelligence and whose testimony helped to convict a number of communists in 1938 for treachery. Using a true story as the foundation of a novel has its advantages and disadvantages. At times the story pauses, for exposition or perhaps because there were periods in the real life Gray’s story when not a lot happened, and this means the flow of tension can seem stop-start.
I really enjoyed A Beautiful Spy. It’s the sort of novel I wish I could find more often. It certainly means I’ll be reading the non-fiction books mentioned by Hore in her Author’s Note at the end.
BUY THE BOOK
Click the title to read my reviews of two other books by Rachel Hore:-
The Love Child
A Week in Paris
If you like this, try:-
‘After the Party’ by Cressida Connolly
‘Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
‘The Ways of the World’ by Robert Goddard
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A BEAUTIFUL SPY by @Rachelhore #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5lL via @SandraDanby