Here’s an intriguing novel situated in the second World War in England. When reading it one immediately feels the typical British summer in the countryside, in a small village with stiff upper lipped Britons flocking the green lawns of their cottages. It reads like one of the novels from Midsummer Murders or similar typical British ‘detective style’ books. The interesting thing about this novel is that it is based on a lot of real-world personae and activities. This is explained in detail at the end of the book, and maybe worth reading before starting to read the novel.
Also interesting, especially for those interested in WW2 stories, is that it combines two distinct topics of that era. The SOE, or Special Operations Executive, the somewhat confusing name of a group of spies and saboteurs operating from England, and the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), the organization made up of non-military, and quite a large number of female pilots who transferred military aircraft during the war.
The book goes into great lengths delving into the psyche of the main characters. Their worries, feelings, doubts, and desires. It describes the characters very well, including all the intrigues of a love story of a woman with three possible husbands, the communist spies embedded in the British secret service, the character of Maxwell, the old commander with his private and work problems. And of course, the SOE agents, adding a bit of adventure and action to the whole. And then there is the love story of course, between the daughter of the SOE commander and three different gentlemen.
The story clearly focusses most on the SOE and spy activities, and less so on the ATA part. Possibly the author is more versed in the former. That is not a bad thing but for aviation buffs something to bear in mind with the expectations of the story.
Although the novel is based on real-world (historic) facts and figures, it is a fantasy story. The events could have happened, but for instance the main operation in France never took place (similar ones, yes). Also, the killing of the German fighter pilots is an episode that doesn’t sound very realistic, and the commander’s daughter’s (Leo) escape from the German fighter in her Spitfire isn’t either. But hey, it is a novel and it adds to the suspense and intrigue. Flying the ‘Spit’ is depicted well, thanks to expert advice. It does bring to memory the gallant services of the many women serving in the ATA, people that have not been given enough credit in my personal view.
Roughly the first half of the books is all about describing the community at Somerville and the efforts of the Russian spies to discredit Commander Maxwell. Although the rationale behind it all is not entirely clear, it makes for a good story. It also prepares the reader in knowing more about the SOE agents and the ATA pilot (Leo, the Commander’s daughter) and their drivers for their activities. The second half of the book puts us in the real action part, with Leo being chased by a lone German fighter when flying a Spitfire, and David and Labrador (the two main SOE agents of the story, and would-be lovers of Leo) being active in France.
The main operation, called operation Zodiac, in France, is the highlight of the story, and I won’t go into details so as not to spoil your reading fun. It is well-written and a good suspense, although it never happened in real life. The other operation described, did in fact. You can read about the reality basis of the operations, and of the characters in the book, in the extensive Postscript. Which is an interesting read in itself. A nice touch is Chapter 20, ‘1945 – Epilogue’, that tells the story of what happened to the characters after the war, just like in a real documentary.
It is a great book, especially if one likes to read about the old England and its upper-class citizens. One can chuckle about the Somerville community, especially since the gossip, scheming, hypocrisy, and indignation will be found in many small villages and communities, not only in England but throughout the world. Good reading if you are in for a love story with spies and intrigue and some action at the end. Maybe not so much if you are interested in the real WW2 history, although many parts come close.