The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley
Yes, we're back. And with one of those rare gems we always hope for but hardly ever find.
It has a catchy title, to be sure. The Spy Who Loved... Not me, or you, just, well, everyone actually. The fuzzy shot of this book's subject doesn't really do Christine Granville justice. She was an out and out beauty, multilingual, a skier, a spy, a woman, with more names than she could possibly have kept track of. Known as the first female spy of WW2, and also as Churchill's favourite spy. That probably has more meanings than Christine had names.
You might assume that we haven't previously heard much of dear Christine because she was, although a trailblazer, quite dull. Spying is a secretive, desk-bound job most of the time, say the Bond critics. There really isn't anyone who has a job that is quite like James Bond's. Heaven forbid! He would be dead ten times a week.
But there was, and she wasn't a man. And she wasn't dull at all.
If you knew that Christine Granville was a Jewish daughter of a Polish aristocrat who was brutally stabbed shortly after the war ended, you might raise an eyebrow that her story has been shrouded in mystery. Surely not here in England, in London, and Kensington no less. Impossible. One would have heard something.
So there remains one explanation for her anonymity. The many men in her life conspired to keep her name, and her story, out of the news for decades after her death. No doubt their reasons were complicated and very personal.
When you know that she travelled (in every sense) in the same circles as wartime heroes Patrick Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss, you start to realise how important she is to Britain's wartime legend. Fermor was famously played by Dirk Bogarde in the movie made from Moss's account of their own wartime antics, Ill Met By Moonlight. Regular readers of the Sidekick will already know how much we love dear Paddy, and the Mitfords, and all the rest of their circle.
On the very first page of Clare Mulley's exceptional book, you start to peel back the truth. Christine Granville my sock! It would be hard to concoct a fictional character with a less Polish name. Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was baptised in May 1908. Even her date of birth has multiple versions, Christine herself seemingly happy to be virtually any age people wanted to believe.
By the time I made it to Chapter Five: A String of Arrests, I was hooked. She hitch-hiked and skied her way around central Europe, in and out of Zakopane, in and out of Allied and Axis nations. Not quite at will, but with a daring that led to her being shot at more than once in a single mission. A String of Arrests might just as easily have been A Hail of Bullets. Perhaps the only reason there is no such chapter is that bullets flew at Christine quite often.
Christine was a spy not only before MI5/6, but even before the wartime SOE existed. It seems she knew what kind of life she wanted from a comparatively young age. Desperate for adventure and danger, she almost invented our notion of the modern spy with only one exception: she was a she. Fleming did not, however, ignore Christine. Mulley seems certain that the two did meet, briefly. There is strong evidence that the very first Bond girl of them all, Vesper Lynd, was based on Christine. The suggestion is thrilling.
The only part of the myth Mulley doesn't accept is the notion that Fleming and Christine had any kind of affair. What is certain is that they moved in the same circles at the right time for her life story, and the massive mythology that grew around it, to inspire any writer. She would have been a gift for Ian Fleming, the writer, if not the man. Many of the men she met in her life mysteriously went on to have daughters they named Christine, out of sheer admiration rather than any biological connection.
This fine book is a shining example of what magic can happen when the right subject finds the right author. Or the other way around. Clare Mulley, hitherto unknown to us, is now flavour of the month. And even better, you don't have to wait for Clare to write another book. The Women Who Flew For Hitler is out in early July and available for pre-order right now. I know!