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Inspired by real-life spy Olga Gray, a tale of passion and intrigue

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Minnie Gray is determined that she won’t fall into the conventional trap of finding a ‘nice’ man, getting married and having children.

Ten years after the end of the Great War, she wants to do so much more with her life… but being recruited as a spy for the British government to infiltrate the British Communist Party might just prove a step too far.

Inspired by the brave and meticulous work of the real-life spy Olga Gray during the 1930s – and in a change of direction from her much-loved time slip novels – Rachel Hore sweeps us into the daring exploits of an extraordinary young woman and a thrilling world of politics, subterfuge and espionage.

Raised in a smart area of Edgbaston, Birmingham, our suburban heroine is cast into a lonely, friendless double existence when she is recruited by renowned MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight, the naturalist and broadcaster who was reputedly a model for the James Bond character ‘M’.

In the summer of 1928, Minnie Gray is an ordinary young woman in Edgbaston, living at home with her widowed mother, working as a secretary at the Automobile Association, under pressure to start thinking about marriage, but secretly longing to make a difference.

Then one day she gets her chance. At a local garden party, she meets the mysterious and rather glamorous Dolly Pyle who reveals that she works for the Secret Service and reckons there’s something about Minnie that they would like.

Recruited as a spy by the charismatic Maxwell (Max) Knight, who runs M section from his house in Sloane Street, and under strict instructions not to tell anyone, not even her family, Minnie moves to London and begins her mission… to infiltrate the British Communist movement.

And after attending meetings of an organisation called the Friends of the Soviet Union, Minnie soon gains the trust of important leaders of the British Communist Party like Percy Glading and Harry Pollitt. But as she grows more and more entangled in the workings of the movement, her job becomes increasingly dangerous.

Leading a double life is starting to take its toll on Minnie and her relationships and, feeling more isolated than ever, she begins to wonder how this is all going to end. The Russians are notorious for ruthlessly disposing of people given the slightest suspicion. What if they find out?

And she is becoming more and more reliant on Max, his voice soothing and calming her in difficult times. Is she in love with him and if so, what kind of love, and would it ever be compensation for all the lies, sleepless night and pretence?

With perilous missions, the menace of working within an organisation linked to the unpredictable Russians, and Minnie’s personal life becoming ensnared in a political maelstrom, Hore paints a compelling portrait of the realities faced by undercover spies and the solitary, often mundane, and painfully isolated nature of their work.

‘Superbly researched, and covering a part of British espionage history that is rarely highlighted in fiction’

With an eclectic cast of characters – including the legendary Max Knight, and Percy Glading, real-life co-founder of the British Communist Party and a Soviet agent – A Beautiful Spy is packed with tension, atmosphere, and rich social and political detail.

Constantly juggling her private life and undercover responsibilities, and unable to share her experiences with her family or few friends, Minnie’s top secret work in a covert, dangerous world inevitably becomes more and more tied to Max, her sole confidant, the boss from whom she must take her orders, and the man she is growing far too fond of.

Superbly researched, and covering a part of British espionage history that is rarely highlighted in fiction, this is a thought-provoking and intensely poignant, emotional and passionate tale about what it truly means to work as a spy.

(A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore, Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)

Pam Norfolk
Pam Norfolk has been writing book reviews for over ten years, including for the Wordsworth Trust. She has also worked as a reporter and sub-editor on regional and national newspapers.

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