On The Reading Table

As noted here before, I read a lot. My reading time is generally lunch time and an hour or so before bed, and as I’ve also mentioned here before, I generally have bookmarks in three or four books at a time and move among those book pretty much on whim.

But every now and then, a book comes along that grips me enough that it’s the only thing I read, and as I get into it, I find myself squeezing out another ten or fifteen minutes of reading time here and there. And when I read late at night, I find myself reluctant to stop, moving my bedtime back bit by bit, just to absorb another twenty pages or so.

That’s what happened last week with A Life In Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm (2005). In Britain during World War II, Atkins climbed from a clerk’s position to near the top of the Special Operations Executive, the organization that sent agents behind the lines into Nazi-occupied Europe to work with local resistance movements. Atkins’ work focused on France, the most important of the occupied nations in the view of the SOE. Many of the agents Atkins sent into France were women, a fact that caused some consternation among British officials, who ended up classifying the women agents as non-military because, you know, we can’t have people thinking we sent women into dangerous combat-like situations.

Many of those agents were captured by the Nazis, and when the war ended, no one took the responsibility to look for the missing women. Except Atkins. After the liberation of France and on through the aftermath of the war, Atkins went looking for clues and information to solve the mysteries of her missing agents.

All that in itself would make for a gripping tale. But Atkins herself was mystery. No one who knew her – and Helms managed to interview a fair number of folks who knew Atkins before, during and after World War II – seems to have known her well at all. A trove of documents left with a relative seems to leave more questions than it answers. But by putting together bits and pieces from those and other documents and from interviews – and talking the reader through the process as she does – Helms assembles a story that takes us places as widely scattered in place and time as the Pale of Settlement in 19th century Russia, Bulgaria before World War I and Canada after World War II.

Along the way, it becomes clear that Vera Atkins had her own secrets, some of which Helms uncovers and some of which Helms can only offer as speculation (although with evidence that seems persuasive).

Atkins doesn’t come across as likable; she seems to have been unable – to name just one of several noted flaws – to admit to being wrong, either personally or professionally. There are several indications of the latter but only a few of the former, as Atkins seems to have let very few people very far into her life. Helms, however, isn’t interested in liking Atkins. She’s interested in solving Atkins’ mysteries. In the end, Helms seems to have solved them, which is quite a feat for a writer working sixty or more years after the fact, researching a subject who seems to have worked hard at not leaving any clues behind.

One of the things that first drew me to A Life In Secrets was the speculation I saw somewhere that Vera Atkins was the model for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, secretary to M and gentle foil to James Bond. It’s possible, Helms notes, but unlikely, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. None of the tales Fleming created for 007 were as complex and intriguing as Vera Atkins’ own story.

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