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Winston Churchill created a secret organization called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in German-occupied Europe. Many spy stories about the Resistance have focused on the SOE over the years, but, recently, there has been a spate of outstanding novels, often combining romance and espionage, that emphasize the crucial role of women in the organization’s activities. This list highlights those books and a few earlier titles, several of which are based on the exploits of real-life women.
Churchill’s Secret Messenger. By Alan Hlad. 2021. Kensington, $15.95 (9781496728418).
Drawing on historical material, Hlad concocts an exciting story involving the recruitment of a typist, Rose Teasdale, working in Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, to train for the SOE and parachute into France. Rose becomes a courier, ferrying information to a real-life French Resistance group called Physician, and soon she is participating in Resistance bombings, often working with Lazare Aron, with whom she falls in love. Hlad does a nice job of intertwining the romance and action stories, treating both realistically and largely without melodrama.
Code Name Hélène. By Ariel Lawhon. 2020. Doubleday, $27.95 (9780385544689).
In February 1944, Nancy Wake parachutes into the French countryside on an SOE mission to organize, fund, arm, and train local Resistance fighters. In this gripping story of the real-life Wake, Lawhon jumps back and forth between the war and 1936, when Nancy, a New Zealand journalist and socialite living in Marseille, gradually becomes involved with the Resistance after the fall of France, eventually transforming herself into a badass heroine who, with notable bravado, takes on both Nazis and sexist Frenchmen.
Dragonfly. By Leila Meacham. 2019. Grand Central, $27 (978153873222).
Meacham’s novel is about the WWII work of the American equivalent of the SOE, the OSS, which also utilized numerous women agents to gather intelligence about the Nazis. Here, five agents, led by fashion designer Brigitte, are working independently in Paris. In an audacious plot twist, three of the five encounter two powerful Nazis who are plotting to end Hitler’s reign; the Nazis realize that the three are spies but continue to feed them information that could damage Hitler, though the Americans are in the dark about what’s happening.
Liberation. By Imogen Kealey. 2020. Grand Central, $27 (9781538733196).
Lest anyone doubt the popularity of the SOE in current WWII espionage, here is the second novel published about real-life socialite spy Nancy Wake since 2020. Kealey’s telling leans a bit more heavily toward melodrama than Lawhon’s Code Name Hélène, but both books do justice to the dramatic story of how a New Zealand émigré to France came to be an SOE agent. Like Lawhon, Kealey emphasizes the challenges Wake faced and overcame in the face of gender prejudice on the part of her comrades.
Mistress of the Ritz. By Melanie Benjamin. 2019. Delacorte, $28 (9780399182242).
Another blend of WWII adventure with romance and mainstream historical fiction, Benjamin’s novel—again based on the experiences of a real woman—tells the story of Blanche Auzello, wife of the manager of Paris’ legendary Hôtel Ritz in Paris. Blanche and her husband, Claude, unbeknownst to one another, were both deeply involved in the Resistance, working with SOE agents, despite spending their days catering to the Nazis, who had taken over the Ritz. Come for the wartime suspense, but stay for the upstairs-downstairs look at running a luxury hotel.
The Paris Spy. By Susan Elia MacNeal. 2017. Bantam, $26 (9780399593802).
SOE agent and math whiz Maggie Hope, who began her war work as Churchill’s secretary, is in Paris (after parachuting into France), posing as an Irish bride-to-be shopping for a trousseau. In the seventh installment of this long-running series, MacNeal vividly portrays Paris during the Occupation, contrasting resisters with collaborators, the latter personified by anti-Semite Coco Chanel, who befriends Maggie while they both stay at the Ritz, where the flow of food and drink belies the city’s shortages and contrasts with the dangerous work of the Resistance.
Restless. By William Boyd. 2006. Bloomsbury, $24 (9781596912373).
In Paris in 1939, Russian émigré Eva Delectorskaya is recruited by British Intelligence to gather information about the Nazis; soon she is engaged in covert ops in Belgium and then in New York City, where she manipulates public opinion to encourage America’s entry into the war and comes to suspect a mole in her unit. Jumping forward decades, Eva plots to finally expose her betrayer. This wonderfully complex tale, exuding moral ambiguity, was made into a fine 2012 film starring Charlotte Rampling as the older Eva.
Three Hours in Paris. By Cara Black. 2020. Soho, $27.95 (9781641290418).
Black, author of the Aimée Leduc series, posits an intriguing theory to one of WWII’s unanswered questions: Why did Hitler arrive in Paris in June 1940, only to leave three hours later? SOE agent Kate Rees, in Black’s telling, is in Paris, too, intending to assassinate the führer. Black constructs a surprise-filled plot, fueled by breathless pacing, Alan Furst–like atmosphere, and a textured look at Resistance fighters in Paris.
The Time in Between. By Maria Dueñas. Tr. by Daniel Hahn. 2011. Atria, $26 (9781451616880).
This breathlessly paced historical novel finds fashion designer Sira Quiroga building a career for herself in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, first in Morocco and, later, in Madrid, where she is approached by the SOE to gather intelligence from the German wives of Nazi leaders. This perfect blend of romance and espionage captures the beauty and decadence of pre-WWII Europe without ignoring or minimizing the very real suffering of Spaniards following Franco’s rise to power.
Trapeze. By Simon Mawer. 2012. Other, $15.95 (9781590515273).
At 19, Marian Sutro is one of the youngest women trained as an operative in the SOE; her mission is to bring research physicist Clement Pelletier, a man she loved at the age of 16, to England to help create the atomic bomb. With lyrical yet spare prose and a heart-pounding climax, this superb literary thriller vividly describes the deprivations faced by the French people during the Occupation—not the least of which was watching their once-vibrant capital drained of its color.
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