Book Review: Spy Mistress by William Stevenson
Rating – Three Stars
Stevenson introduces Vera Atkins—her nome de guerre, and recounts her exploits as a senior operator in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). This deep black outfit trained and sent agents into occupied Europe and Southeast Asia to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance—and to work with local resistance groups. For example, in France it was the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), or simply the Marquis.
Vera Maria Rosenberg was born in 1908 in Galati, Romania to well-to-do Jewish parents. Exceptionally well educated in the most prestigious school in Europe, she had an affinity for languages and used sex as her opening gambit to cultivate influential men. In 1937 war clouds covered Europe. Vera immigrated to England, changed her name, and destroyed all references to her Jewish heritage. It’s unclear how she became involved in the SOE. Nonetheless, she quickly rose to become head of the “F” Section (French). She was responsible for recruiting agents, seeing to their training, and making assignments into Nazi controlled France. No need to recount the details here. Suffice it to say that she executed her tasks with assiduous efficiency. At war’s end, senior intelligence officers credited the FFI’s campaign against the German Army as the equivalent of having the effect of two infantry divisions.
I’ve done additional research into Atkins’ activities. The Gestapo (Nazi’s secret police) captured far too many of her agents—tortured and killed them. Some they turned into double agents sending false information to SOE. One question unanswered is, was Atkins herself a double agent? Perhaps a triple agent? We do not know. She died in June 2000 at age 91.
In recognition of her outstanding work, King George VI awarded her the honors of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre and the distinction as a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
I do not know what to make of this book. It’s a hodgepodge of facts, names, and events without coherence. Atkins’ story is lost in the helter-skelter. For instance, the work and travails of the important agent named “White Rabbit” is scattered over several non-consecutive chapters. Often times, Stevens will begin an account of an agent’s activities then without reason, he changes the story to some non-related event. He may or may not continue the original in some later chapter.
Stevens made his literary mark with his outstanding book titled A Man Called Intrepid, published in 1976. In 1983 he published Intrepid’s Last Case. I read this book and was seriously disappointed. Unfortunately, I must relegate Spy Mistress as another disappointment. Buried in chaos of this book is a compelling story that ought to be told. Perhaps another author will accept the challenge.
Review © Martin Shelton