A BEAUTIFUL SPY by Rachel Hore narrated by Sandra Duncan

I have never heard of Rachel Hore before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect with this novel, based on the true story of “Miss X” who worked as a spy for MI5 from 1931 to 1937, before moving to Canada at the end of World War Two.

OLGA Gray (1906-1990) referred to in the novel by author Rachel Hore (for some reason best known to herself) as MINNIE Gray. Source dailymail.co.uk.

What was excellent about this book was Ms. Hore’s delineation of the protagonist’s feelings, the kind of strain she was under, how torn her loyalties were, and lastly, her compassionate, compelling account of her nervous breakdown

What surprised me was how slow it was. I would say that the first two thirds of this piece were slow-going with little sense of direction. The reason for this is probably because the protagonist, referred to as “Minnie Gray” by Ms. Hore, leads a boring, humdrum life. And even though she is recruited by M15 in 1931 to spy on British Communists, much of her work is…you guessed it, boring and humdrum.

I was surprised that such an award-winning author would make this kind of mistake. It is the same kind of challenge one has with a character who is confused about something. One always has to remember that while it is perfectly fine for the CHARACTER to be confused, it is NEVER good to have a confused READER. Similarly, it is fine for MINNIE GRAY to be bored, but NOT good for the READER to feel bored.

Maxwell Knight (1887-1968) Olga’s handler at MI5. Possibly the inspiration for the James Bond character “M.” Source dailymail.co.uk, courtesy of Valerie Lippay.

As all novelists should know, it is our job to cut out all the boring bits, so that the reader doesn’t have to wade through them.

Given that this novel is about an amazing young woman who broke the mold for what was considered proper behavior in 1920s and 1930s Britain, it was a great pity that the novel did not begin provocatively with a proper hook, and never built a narrative arc that milked the tension of the real danger she was in.

But what really puzzled me was the name of the protagonist. Why, oh why, did Ms. Hore refer to her as MINNIE Gray, when her real name was OLGA? The fact that her name WAS actually Olga, made the whole episode of the teasing singing of the “Olga Pulloffsky, you beautiful spy” song much more understandable. Of course OLGA Gray would find it very upsetting when her Communists comrades sang it to her as she entered the office every morning, especially as she was Olga the Beautiful Spy. But Ms. Hore’s calling her MINNIE caused this episode to be more puzzling than menacing. A strange thing for such an accomplished author to do.

Ultimately, I found this novel disappointing. Three stars.

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