Tag Archives: MI5

#BookReview ‘A Beautiful Spy’ by @Rachelhore #WW2 #spies

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. Rachel HoreAt 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.

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

#BookReview ‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron #spy #thriller

Always on the lookout for a new thriller series to sink into, I am a late discoverer of the Jackson Lamb books by Mick Herron. Soon to be filmed as ‘Slough House’ and starring Gary Oldman as Lamb, it seemed a good time to start with book one, Slow Horses. Mick Herron

Lamb is the quixotic leader of Slough House, the place where British spies go when they have messed up. They work in a scruffy non-descript building doing boring, repetitive, desk-based jobs and dream of going on ‘ops.’ The reason for each person’s banishment is not spoken by some pact of olvidado but they are all intensely curious about each other. Very much on the outside, they are derided at the Park, the Regent’s Park MI5 headquarters run by ‘dogs’ and ‘achievers.’ The book is littered with spy language, at first confusing, but soon accepted without a second thought.

As always, the first book in a series can be slow to progress, given the need to establish characters, setting and world. And there are a lot of characters, some of whom were cardboard cut-outs with names. The action really gets moving with Hassan, a student who has been kidnapped by three white racists. His beheading is scheduled to take place live and be broadcast on the internet. Members of Slough House are pulled into an op which threatens to go badly wrong, not helped by the intense secrecy and rivalry of everyone involved. Not to mention lots of chips on shoulders. This is not a team and Lamb is not a leader, instead he sits in his top-floor office and is rarely seen.

Slow Horses features a bunch of dysfunctional characters who are unattractive and secretive and the link of the spies to Hassan’s plight is slow to appear. When it does, the story takes off as the team are yanked from their torpidity, told to use their initiative and become the spies they were trained to be. I can’t say I ended the book feeling I had access to Lamb’s character but then he is a spy and so inaccessible, opaque, contradictory. He is also irreverent, funny, disgusting, authority-hating, rude and strangely likeable. Interesting characters I want to see more of include Slough House agent River Cartwright, his grandfather the ‘OB’ who is retired and lives in Tonbridge, and slimy politician PJ who has a wonderful basement kitchen.

Next in the seven-book ‘Slough House’ series is Dead Lions which I will read soon in the expectation that Jackson Lamb’s past will be revealed.

If you like this, try:-
Panic Room’ by Robert Goddard
The Travelers’ by Chris Pavone
The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
SLOW HORSES by Mick Herron #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-57J via @SandraDanby