A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore – Secrets and lies in the build up to war

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore 

Minnie Gray wants to do more than marry and have babies, as expected of her in 1928. This is a novel of a young woman who gets involved in situations she doesn’t understand, in order to please a mysterious spymaster. Written with a sense of tension in a time of political uncertainty, Minnie’s story was inspired by the real life Olga Gray who was recruited as an MI5 infiltration agent. Like her, Minnie is connected to MI5 by Maxwell, and it is that which keeps her going through the tedium and danger of working among Communist Party members. A quietly written novel of a young woman trying to make the most of her life, clinging on the edge of what she thinks is important, with an awareness  of the tedium of a young woman’s life, this is a compelling tale well told. It has little to do with the glamour and excitement of a more usual spy story, and in a neat twist has her rejecting a film version of espionage, describing instead the loneliness of a young woman who cannot reveal to anyone the true nature of her work. Full of the small details of life in  early 1930s London, this novel is eloquent in describing Minnie’s quiet, efficient life which has a continuous element of danger,as she knows of the possible outcome of discovery. “A beautiful spy” is the somewhat ironic refrain that follows Minnie throughout this well written novel, as she feels more of a grey background figure, discreet, useful, and quietly used to the excitement of an impossible challenge. I found this a fascinating read, a beautifully executed theme, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The novel opens with Minnie attending a Conservative garden party in her home town. Helping her widowed mother from habit rather than political conviction, she is overwhelmed with the dullness of her life, and the expectation that she will marry well and be content with her lot. Intrigued by a mysterious woman, the vague promise of a more interesting employment attracts her, but seems to disappear quickly. It is over three years later, in November 1931, that she is invited to meet a mysterious Captain King in London. Not that she has moved on much in the intervening period, and she is not convinced by his offer of part time ‘work’ infiltrating the Communist Party, as long as she can find herself somewhere to live and another part time job. She shows enterprise and efficiency by calmly finding herself work and a flat, and gradually becomes a trusted organiser of offices and systems for the devoted but disorganised members of a Party attracted by the ideals and systems of Russia. Not that she is persuaded by patriotism or dedication, rather the regular meeting with the elusive Max, who praises her progress and urges her to further efforts. Even though his own life seems troubled, and she is somewhat tempted by a conventional life with the unexciting Raymond, she continues to try to impress Max, despite a continuing cost.

This novel narrates from the point of view of a bewildered young woman who rapidly learns the absolute discretion required of her double life, and has to meet challenges with little support. Hore quietly describes a life of small incidents, little details and the sort of self effacing efficiency that makes Minnie an effective operative.It also conveys the sense of loneliness necessitated by her secrecy from her family and few friends of her true actions. This is a book which is carefully written, yet stylishly describes the probable true demands on the quiet but effective agents of a silent conflict, and I thoroughly recommend it as the story of a woman spy in the build up to the Second World War.