A Treachery of Spies now joins Sarah Helm’s nonfiction A Life of Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE and Elizabeth Wein’s YA Code Named Verity atop my list the exciting and moving Second World War historical books I have had the pleasure to read. This was one of the very worst periods in human history, but it was illuminated by the highest acts of bravery, sacrifice and comradeship that saved civilisation from the most despicable evil. Imagine being young and possessed of the necessary physical and linguistic skills, and then being trained to be the fittest you’ll ever be, able to sprint up mountain sides with heavy loads, shoot, set off explosives, code and decode secret messages, to derail an express train with an overcoat and to kill a man several different ways with your bare hands. And if you’re caught to face excruciating torture and transportation to a death camp. How could you ever return to ordinary life again? The principal characters in Manda Scott’s novel don’t. For them the war is never really over and old enmities and betrayals are avenged many years later.
The story is set in two time-frames. In the present, a French police captain in Orléans leads the investigation of the murder of a woman whose name appears to be Sophie Destivelle, shot in a car by an expert hit-man. In the back story we are in England and France from 1940 to 1944 with British Special Operations Executive and members of the French Maquis attempting to “Set Europe Ablaze” in the months leading up to D-Day, when a mixed British-American Jedburgh team joins them. The team, especially Sophie, Laurence, and his cousin Céline are very attractive and in the case of the latter two, aristocratic characters. Their antagonist is the Gestapo man Kramme, oozing with repulsive oily charm. And there is at least one traitor in their group, which indeed fits the setting; France was rife with double and even triple agents.
The breath-taking action scenes are excessively detailled and as they often take longer to depict than they would to elapse, the effect for the reader is like watching in slow motion. I liked the descriptions of firearms and explosives, though I thought the reliability and effectiveness of the Sten gun overrated. Unfortunately, the younger characters in the present story were nowhere near as attractive, especially the odious Americans. The principal artistic problem though was time: John le Carré has the same problem in Legacy of Spies, the characters who survive from the backstory are simply too old to be believably capable of present-day mayhem. In fact, one victim of a revenge killing is already a hospice patient—why bother? But forget the ugly Americans and almost as lourd (is there any other kind?) French police officers , the “Blythe Children of the Mountain Warriors of Vengeance” (as the Résistants style themselves poetically) shine like bright stars in a dark night. I expect A Treachery of Spies may become my favourite book of the year.