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Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, The Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II

by William Stevenson

Readers of William Stevenson’s 1976 book A Man Called Intrepid, about a Canadian-born Second World War spy for the British (named, oddly enough, William Stephenson) will find themselves in familiar territory with the author’s newest title. Spymistress is less about its ostensible subject – Vera Atkins, another Second World War spy – than it is about espionage and irregular warfare in general.

Born Vera Maria Rosenberg in Bucharest, Romania, Atkins took her mother’s family name to disguise her Jewish heritage. Working with Stephenson, she recruited and trained members of his Special Operations Executive (SOE), part of Churchill’s intelligence system, as well as carrying out her own covert missions.

Stevenson, especially in the early chapters of the book, piles on multiple names, aliases, titles, and references, making the story difficult to follow. He also randomly inserts odd pieces of information, such as Atkins’ astrological sign and a description of her fellow spy as a “Scot with a touch of the second sight.” The opening chapters also jump back and forth through dates and events in the years leading up to the war. The resulting confusion may just be reflective of the state of Europe in the prewar years. However, the style drags and might put off less dedicated readers.

Once the war begins, the book pulls together. Stevenson offers intriguing insights into the behind-the-scenes actions of members of the SOE. The book does a good job of revealing the conflicts within British intelligence – Whitehall, run by upper-class, by-the-book gentlemen, vehemently apposed the actions of Atkins’ rough band of covert operatives.

However, the book fails to reveal much about Vera Atkins. Her own missions are not given the same level of detail as those of her operatives. More insultingly, Stevenson ascribes Atkins’ ability to glean information to her physical appeal – Atkins enchants rather than outwits the enemy, is the implication. (In his introduction, Stevenson relates his own encounter with Atkins by describing his memory of her legs and breasts.)

Stevenson apparently promised Atkins he would not publish a book about her until after her death. (She died in 2000.) He may have fulfilled his promise, but he hasn’t done justice to her life.