Engaging life of the spymistress reputed to have been the model for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny.
Vera Atkins was far more mysterious than her fictional counterpart, as London-based journalist Helm discovered on meeting her in 1998. Just about to turn 90, Atkins was disinclined to speak openly about her past (“It is something on which I have closed the book,” she grumbled), and she was hostile to nostalgia. Yet, on her death in 2000, she left behind a tantalizing trail of clues, apparently intended for Helm, that, in good spook style, “looked like nothing on first examination but in fact had been deliberately placed to lead the interested party down a particular route.” What Helm knew was that Atkins had been a senior officer in the intelligence organization called the Special Operations Executive, which was charged with inserting secret agents in Nazi-occupied Europe, coordinating their reports and occasionally charging them with tasks such as assassination or sabotage. As it happened, SOE was thoroughly infiltrated, with one particularly nasty French double agent turning over his colleagues to the Gestapo as soon as they landed. Dozens of agents Atkins had recruited and trained were captured. After D-Day, she went looking for them; of particular interest was Nora Inayat Khan, an Indian children’s-book author who was allegedly incapable of telling a lie. What Atkins found in her wanderings through the maze of spydom lends Helm’s narrative the aspect of a taut, well-plotted thriller; what Helm found out with much difficulty about Atkins, a Jewish refugee whom anti-Semitic superiors tried to block and who may have had secret dealings with the Nazis in order to free members of her family from the camps, is constantly surprising.
Fans of Len Deighton—and, of course, Fleming—will value this as much as will students of intelligence and counterintelligence.